Contextualizing Physical and Iconographical Crossroads
- Geographies: Situating the Sogdians
I’d like to take a look at geography (in fact, multiple geographies) and the known contexts for Sogdian material, particularly since so many of the objects we are considering do not have specific archaeological contexts. By focusing in on the use of space and place, the regional differences between settlements, and modifications of landscape, I hope to re-ground dislocated objects by relating them to material that did come from excavated contexts. This also ties into the second theme, since first-hand accounts give some of the best descriptions of geographies and the uses of objects and spaces (Strabo’s Geography being a good example of the overlap).
This may also include taking a look at traded commodities and trying to understand local resources. If I can find relevant material, I’d be interested in continuing my work on cinnabar and mercury that I started in Abby’s class last term. The mausoleum of the first Qin emperor in Xi’an, which famously had rivers of mercury and was fashioned as a microcosm of the capital Xianyang, is a bit early in the third century BCE but might be a good jumping-off point in thinking about how urban geographies were conveyed and how precious materials were used in expressive funerary contexts (also relates to personal experiences and syncretism).
II. Personalities and Personal Experiences
Because the Sogdians are so distant in time and space from our current New York reality, using personal narratives will a) speak to the actual experiences of individuals living at the time of the Sogdians and b) give another dimension to the geographies mentioned above. Instead of moving in a straight line from city to city, as we are now accustomed to thinking about travel, narratives can give a sense of a journey marked not in hours to arrival but in obstacles to be surmounted. We had talked about geo-referencing ancient maps to modern ones. I’d like to get a sense of how to adjust our perspective to see a worldview closer to one that individuals may have experienced at the time (considering first-person narratives along with contemporary maps such as the Tabula Peutingeriana).
Narratives may also help with the problems of time and scale we’ve already touched on in class. How can we express how much smaller and yet larger (population vs. difficulty of travel), and how much more and less interconnected in very different ways the world was at the time? Keeping in mind that there is a very disparate group of source material, how can we acknowledge source bias but also the validity of those same biases as lived experience?
One of the points that seems to come up again and again is the multiplicity of traditions- religious and otherwise- found in and around the Sogdian world. I’d like to research the variations in temple construction and religious practice throughout the nearby regions, as well as pursuing variations in everyday goods if possible. Religions may be easier to delineate from contemporary (or later) canonized texts, but the cross-cultural exchanges continued in everyday contexts as well (the division between what we encompass as “church” and “state” was a somewhat later invention). How were concepts, iconographies, and technologies put to new uses? Were the divisions between religious traditions less or more concrete?
The Roman concept of “spolia” might be interesting to apply to the Sogdian world. While not physical conquerors of extensive territory beyond Sogdia, their seeming mercantile dominance must have had interesting consequences for the culture inside Sogdia itself. As new goods and peoples came along the trade routes, were they purposefully brought back as symbols of power? How did these new ideas and iconographies affect or become incorporated into the expressions of hierarchy as seen in material culture?
In geographies and personal narratives as well, the large stretches of time over which this project spans may be obstacles to a deeper understanding of any one specific place and time. Hopefully, this can be overcome with an interconnected series of points, grounded by objects and personal narratives. Particularly with syncretism, thinking diachronically may actually help in providing further specificity, as long as we acknowledge the temptation to oversimplify by finding overarching trends, which can be counterbalanced with the realities of physical remains and voices in personal narratives.
de la Vaissière, Étienne, trans. James Ward. Sogdian Traders: A History. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
Lerner, Judith. “Zoroastrian Funerary Beliefs and Practices Known from the Sino-Sogdian Tombs in China,” in The Silk Road 9 (2011): pp. 18-25. (Use of Book of Tang quote, look at personal narratives, reuse of iconographies, mixtures of religious practices).
Marshak, Boris. “The Archaeology of Sogdiana,” in The Silk Road Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 2003). (Summary of archaeological work in Sogdiana.)
Marshak, Boris. Legends, Tales and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002. (Especially discussion of ideal vs. real, p. 14 ff.)
Stark, Sören. “Luxurious Necessities: Some observations on foreign commodities and nomadic polities in 6th to 9th century Central Asia,” in J. Bemmann and M. Schmauder eds., Complexity of Interaction along the Eurasian Steppe Zone in the First Millennium AD: pp. 463-502. Vor- und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, 2015. (Especially Stark’s assertion that “besides their display value, it was their redistribution that turned them into political capital” (p. 473): in talking about syncretism, have to consider contemporary definitions of local/foreign, exoticism as power, difference between assimilation and incorporation.)