Book Review

ARMIN SELBITSCHKA. Prestigegüter entlang der Seidenstraße? Archäologische und historische Untersuchungen zu Chinas Beziehungen zu Kulturen des Tarimbeckens vom zweiten bis frühen fünften Jahrhundert nach Christus (Asiatische Forschungen 154). xiv+739 pages, 110 b&w & colour illustrations, 61 tables. 2010. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz; 978-3-447-09307-4 hardback (2 volumes) €98.

Review by Alexander Koch
Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Germany

(Translated from the German by Reviews Editor)

Koch image

Since the expeditions of the German geographer and explorer Ferdinand von Richthofen almost 150 years ago, the term Silk Road represents, like no other concept, a network linking Europe to Asia; a network that has so far eschewed tighter definition, has repeatedly conjured up mental images that do not correspond to the reality, and has time and again been the subject of intensive research from the most varied perspectives within archaeology, history, geography, philology or anthropology. The Silk Road is evidently not a road, but the misnomer can no longer be removed from our vocabulary. For centuries, the Silk Road—more accurately the Silk Roads—has been (and still is) associated with caravan routes that crossed bleak steppes and dry deserts, covered enormous distances and enabled the international and transcontinental exchange of goods, ideas, inventions and innovations as well as religious beliefs. The heyday of relationships, transformations and exchanges along the inner Asiatic Silk Road, as opposed to the maritime Silk Road, is generally understood—against the backdrop formed by the contemporary civilisations of Europe and Asia (i.e. the Roman, eastern Roman/Byzantine, Parthian and Sassanid empires and the culture of the Sogdians) and the chronology of the Chinese imperial dynasties—to be the period between the Han (206 BC to AD 220) and Tang (AD 618–907) dynasties. This latter period is marked by military confrontations with eastward-expanding Arab powers around the middle of the eighth century AD and corresponds to the second half of the Tang period, which had emerged as a politically successful and culturally prosperous time, factors which led to a gradual but inexorable decline of the Silk Road in favour of South Asian maritime routes. Along the widely-ramified Silk Road network, in a constant give and take that spanned centuries, the cultures of Mediterranean Antiquity encountered those of the Near East and the empires of the Middle and Far East—altogether the established civilisations of Europe and Asia—meeting in the process the nomadic and semi-nomadic cultures of the Eurasian steppes to the north. This brief summary illustrates the complexity of European-Asian cultural transfers, and highlights the diversity of the many disciplines and traditions in Silk Road research.

Against this background, Selbitschka's publication on the significance of prestige goods in funerary contexts along the so-called Silk Road—more precisely among the cultures of the Tarim Basin in former East Turkestan (now in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang in the People's Republic of China) in the second to fifth centuries AD and their relationships with China—is the result of a long-lived and meticulous preoccupation and scholarly confrontation with a (from a western perspective) seemingly remote research topic. The study, part of a German Research Council graduate programme on "Forms of prestige in past cultures" completed in 2007 at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, highlights how archaeology, a multidisciplinary science including a variety of subject areas in the humanities and the natural sciences, can reflect our own circumstances. For Silk Road archaeology, currently experiencing a boom in the international research arena, it is possible, at least for the last two or three decades and in view of the exciting discoveries made in China, to speak of a prolonged peak in activity. There are indeed no signs of a downturn, a good century after the path-breaking expeditions and investigations of Aurel Stein, Albert Grünwedel, Albert von Le Coq and many other foreign scholars (those "foreign devils on the Silk Road"). The multiplicity of international and interdisciplinary expeditions, research and publication projects, major exhibitions, lavishly produced volumes, films and television documentaries speaks for itself. Collaborative programmes between Chinese institutions and partners from Japan, Great Britain, Germany, France or Switzerland have played a significant part.

Pride of place must go to the excavations and study of the desert areas of Xinjiang which were undertaken under strong Chinese impetus in the 1980s; these yielded a wealth of extensive, well-preserved and highly significant archaeological settlements and cemeteries of the early oasis cultures, frequently hailed in the Chinese and foreign media as sensational discoveries. Of great importance were the finds from the cemeteries of Yingpan, Loulan, Niya and Zhaganluke (Cherchen) where the arid climate created excellent preservation conditions (including dry mummies) and opportunities to undertake scientific investigations such as anthropological, palaeo-pathological and genetic analyses; one recalls for example the so-called 'Yingpan Man' (Grave 15), buried fully-clothed and with a death-mask on his face. Grave goods included everyday objects such as vessels of wood and lacquer, leather and cloth bags, weapons and tools, as well as sometimes intricately decorated silks and other textiles, which apparently clothed the dead during their lifetime and accompanied them into the afterlife.

These extensive testimonies to a flourishing oasis culture in the Tarim Basin, or more prosaically these findspots along the southern part of the Silk Road, form the basis of Selbitschka's comprehensive study; despite its focus on prestige goods and an archaeological-historical perspective, it contains and makes accessible for the first time to German-speaking scholarship a body of material which reaches far beyond the north-western Chinese study area, and which is relevant to the recent debate around an increasingly important phase of European-Asian culture history. The author had to rely on preliminary reports published mainly in Chinese: these were quite disparate, seldom more than a finds report, and often limited in terms of archaeological methodology and documentation, leaving many fundamental questions unanswered. But it must also be emphatically acknowledged that Chinese research and archaeological literature have made enormous progress in the last ten to fifteen years and continue to make giant strides. This, however, cannot make up for the shortcomings of earlier investigations; in addition, countless excavations carried out by the Chinese have not been published at all, or synthetic reports are missing. Given this difficult starting point, Selbitschka's bibliographic search deserves praise: this time-consuming and painstaking task, together with the compilation of a catalogue and the presentation of the material, with the emphasis on prestige goods successfully achieved, are all to his credit.

The period spanning the second to early fifth century AD is seen in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) as essentially a phase of transition marked by the inexorable decline of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25–220), the attendant collapse of the empire and consequently the partition of China into smaller territories and shorter-lived ruling dynasties. This period is known in Chinese historical accounts as the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms (Jin Dynasty, AD 265–420), which is followed by the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420–581) and the Sui Dynasty (AD 581–618); in 589, the Empire was restored by military and political means but it was the rulers of the succeeding Tang Dynasty benefitted from the new unity. Between the Han and Tang Dynasties the minor states (oasis states), which were then far removed from the contemporary centres of Chinese civilisation, saw the development of fundamental social, political and religious concepts; these notions have a particular relevance for the inner Asiatic and trans-continental cultural movement of exclusive goods which Selbitschka examines.

Selbitschka's two-volume work is logically organised. A comprehensive first volume contains an introduction to the scope of the research (Chapter 1), a valuable historical overview of the written sources concerning the relationship between China and the oasis states of the Tarim Basin (Chapter 2), extensive treatment in Chapters 4–7 of the archaeological data (cemeteries, burial assemblages) and a critical appraisal of the Chinese approach to dating (Chapter 8). This is followed by a presentation of antiquarian investigations and an analysis of finds considered by the author to be prestige goods (Chapter 9), a short conclusion (Chapter 10), various glossaries, a catalogue of burial assemblages organised by site and a comprehensive bibliography. The second, thinner, volume contains colour plates including photographs of the most important artefacts (hollow glasses, bronze mirrors, silk cloths), maps and plans, over 60 summaries in tabular form, and 73 plates with line drawings of graves and artefacts.

The questions Selbitschka asks of the archaeological data, about the identification, importance, relevance and transmission of exclusive objects as grave goods, touch on themes that have long preoccupied international archaeological scholarship and which are intricately linked to questions concerning pre- and protohistoric elites and forms of self-representation through status symbols and luxury goods. The sample of archaeological assemblages and the detailed discussion of the relevant finds allow the author to conduct a detailed analysis of the reciprocal relations between China and the oasis cultures of the Tarim Basin in the second to the early fifth century AD. Thereafter the historical and archaeological sources largely dry up: some rare Chinese historical sources depict the oasis states as remote from the political centres and geographically, socially and culturally peripheral or backward, at best border areas from which one could demand tribute; among the rich funerary assemblages of the local elites, jewellery and objects of precious stone, Chinese or Chinese-style bronze mirrors, imported glass and lacquer vessels or precious textiles reflect impressively the hierarchical organisation of the communities which benefitted in no small measure from the economic and cultural exchange along the Silk Road.

An analysis of social status (based on the wealth of grave goods) suggests that the local communities were socially differentiated and that there was further differentiation within elites. Members and aspiring members of such elites showed their high rank through the possession of rare objects and the public display of their wealth in their appearance. These forms of self-representation are reflected in the burials, where the dead were buried in the clothes they had worn in their lifetime. China acted in many respects as a model of high civilisation for the (by Chinese standards) peripheral oasis states of the Tarim Basin. This manifested itself, in specific but not exclusive ways, in the possession of artefacts which reflected an orientation towards Chinese civilisation and complex networks of relationships. The Tarim Basin elites tried, through the acquisition of exclusive objects from China (but also other exotica from further west, for example Sassanid hollow glasses) and especially through the wearing of Chinese or Chinese-style silk, to emulate a courtly lifestyle and attire strongly influenced by China. Given the great demand for and limited availability of Chinese originals, the elites often used local and regional adaptations or imitation, as Selbitschka demonstrates in an analysis of techniques used in weaving, finishing and decorative motifs. Moreover, precious Chinese silks and brocades were often re-used.

Given the archaeological and historical focus of the work under review, the outcome in the last two decades of investigations by the natural sciences, in particular physical anthropology, was left largely untouched. Here a comparative approach can surely yield more results, for example on the origin and identity of the inhumations: were they exclusively members of the local elites, or incoming Han Chinese, or even merchants?—questions which touch on the oft-debated issue of the Sogdians in the oasis cultures of the Tarim Basin. One could also have wished, while acknowledging the difficulties the author faced, for a relative chronology of the cemeteries and burials examined, which could serve as the basis for further studies. Many questions must be left to future, interdisciplinary enquiries: for example questions of mobility, migration, identity and exchange relationships between population groups within the oasis cultures and among neighbouring, part nomadic, part settled groups, and China.

These few reservations aside, Selbitshka's work is a fundamental contribution to the understanding of the cultures that grew along the Chinese part of the Silk Road. It is exciting to speculate how far future Chinese, German and international research will bring insights into the questions formulated by the author. He has made a significant and valuable start!