Silk Roads: from local realities to global narratives
Jeffrey D Lerner and Yaohua Shi (eds)
Oxbow Books, £55
Review by: Tim Williams
This edited volume is the product of an innovative project, culminating in a multiple-day workshop of the same name as this publication, organised by Silk Roads Winston-Salem (SRWS), a group from Wake Forest University that brought together scholars across multiple disciplines to discuss the Silk Roads and their impact on local and global conceptions. The papers range geographically across the overland and maritime Silk Routes, and chronologically from antiquity to contemporary issues around China’s One Belt One Road Initiative. As such, it is an amazing volume. The workshop must have been a very exciting experience for its participants, but it is much harder to get a flavour of this in the published volume: the latter inevitably tends towards disciplinary-specific papers, which struggle to conceptualise or represent those cross-disciplinary sparks that must have flown across the workshop itself.
The volume sets its goal as the exploration of aspects of ‘exchange and transformation along the Silk Roads’, and the 17 papers are presented in five thematic sections: ‘Acculturation and Hybridization’, ‘Understanding Spice through Interdisciplinarity’, ‘Tradition as Continuity and Change’, ‘Cultural Transactions’, and ‘Long-Distance Commodity Trade’. As with many conferences/workshops, the papers within these themes range from the very specific to the very synthetic, and take on widely varying issues and perspectives that do not always sit comfortably together under the section headings. Indeed, given the multidisciplinary approach, is it slightly strange to group them together in such sections at all? Altogether, this contributes to the somewhat uneven feel of the volume. The spatial and chronological range of the topics, from Afro-Eurasia to the Americas, and from ancient to modern, takes the already loose definition of the Silk Roads rather further perhaps than seems useful.
However, it must be said, that the multidisciplinary approach to the Silk Roads in this volume is also fascinating, and it will lead the reader into territory that they find unfamiliar. The papers, overall, bring out the complexity of strands that are inherent in debates about the Silk Roads, especially within the broader theme of globalisation. The emphasis on the multiplicity of interactions, and the integration (not separation) of overland and maritime exchange and impacts, are very well done. These issues are drawn together excellently in the ‘Introduction’ by the editors Jeffery Lerner and Yaohua Shi, which captures the interdisciplinary approach most effectively.
The two papers that are perhaps the most interesting from an archaeological perspective are Nicola Di Cosmo’s paper on ‘Ecological Frontiers and Military Innovation’, which rightly highlights the importance of both a longue durée perspective and the impact of trans-ecological exchange as a driver in the Silk Roads; and Xiaoyan Qi’s exploration of the ‘Sogdians in Shanxi (386 CE-618 CE)’, where she explores routes and interactions. But there is much else to enjoy in this volume: I particularly liked ‘“Malacca” – from Fabled Port to Muddy Lagoon: a Cautionary Tale of Ecological Disaster’, by Margaret Sarkissian, which emphasises the importance of considering the impact of broader narratives on the way that local realities are conceived, and how local people use, or reject, these conceptual markings of themselves and their communities.
In conclusion, there is so much to like in this publication. It will broaden perspectives on the Silk Roads, both in antiquity and through its impact on the 21st century. It challenges us not to compartmentalise disciplines, and invites the reader to consider the broader impacts and significance of the complexity of our interwoven pasts.