Silk Road Roundtable: A Dialogue between Archaeologists and Historians

AHA Session 162
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Grand Ballroom B (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Thomas J. Barfield, Boston University
Christopher I. Beckwith, Indiana University Bloomington
Michelle Negus Cleary, University of Melbourne
Michael Frachetti, Washington University in St. Louis
Kathryn Franklin, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Richard Payne, University of Chicago
Jonathan Skaff, Shippensburg University and Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University

Session Abstract

The notion of a “Silk Road” has for over a century had a strong hold on the popular imagination and has recently been prominently featured in world history education, yet very few scholars agree on precisely how to define the Silk Road.  This roundtable discussion addresses three deceptively simple questions about the “Silk Road” that will appeal both to researchers and to educators.  When did the Silk Road flourish?  Where was it?  And how did it work?  Bringing together a panel of three archaeologists and three historians for an interdisciplinary and intergenerational discussion, we will address the chronological, spatial, and functional parameters of one of the world’s most important zones of migration and cultural exchange.

The Silk Road is usually associated with the first millennium CE; however, some historians have argued that extensive trade and other meaningful exchanges continued long past 1000 and even 1500.  In the last three years national leaders have even recycled this term for diplomatic and infrastructural initiatives linking China and Central Asia.  And while many historians see the Silk Road as emerging sometime around the first century CE, archaeologists have shown that Eurasian cross-cultural exchanges began long before this period.  Likewise, whereas scholars have traditionally identified the Silk Road with routes linking oasis towns of Taklamakan Desert and cities in the Fergana Valley, some recent scholarship has argued for the greater importance of the steppes in east-west migration and exchange; still other studies emphasize the “vertical” north-south exchange.  Finally, there is even less scholarly consensus on how the “Silk Road” worked.  Did it flourish when nomadic empires rose to power, or when the great agrarian empires were in the ascent?  Was silk a necessary component of the “Silk Road”?

Panelists will be asked three fundamental questions about the Silk Road: When did it flourish?  Where was it?  And how did it work?  Each of the six panelists will be allotted five minutes to address each question.   All six panelists will address the first question, before moving on to the second and then the third.  The moderator will offer opening and closing comments.  The audience will be invited to pose questions toward the end.  

The roundtable moderator, Thomas Barfield, is an anthropologist with expertise in Afghanistan, and has written about the relationship between China and nomadic powers.  The remaining six panelists include three archaeologists and three historians.  Christopher Beckwith is a historian of Central Eurasia who has written a study of this region from the Bronze Age to the present day.  Michael Frachetti is an archaeologist who works in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and explores early developments that laid the foundations for Silk Road exchange.  Kathryn Franklin is an archaeologist whose work focuses on late medieval Armenia.  Michelle Negus Cleary is an archaeologist with expertise in ancient western Central Asia.  Richard Payne is a historian of the Iranian world in late antiquity, ca. 200-800 CE .  Jonathan Skaff is a historian who has written about interactions between China and the Turks from the sixth through eighth centuries.

See more of: AHA Sessions