February 9 – Historical Overview

///February 9 – Historical Overview
February 9 – Historical Overview 2018-01-07T14:25:17-05:00

Class Plan

  • Nancy Micklewright provides an overview of the Freer|Sackler project.
  • Historical overview of the social, cultural, political, and economic dynamics of the regions surrounding the Sogdians from around 300 BCE to 1000 CE.
  • Discussion: How to research and write an object study



Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), Introduction, Chapters 3, 4 and 5 (pp. 1-24, 83-166). (BGC | NYU: PDF 1. PDF 2. PDF 3. Notes.)

Étienne de la Vaissière, Sogdian Traders: A History, trans. James Ward (Leiden: Brill, 2005), General introduction, Introduction to Part One, Chapter One, Introduction to Part Two, Chapter Four, Chapter Six, Introduction to Part Three, Chapter Eight, General Conclusion (pp. 1-42, 95-118, 159-196, 227-260, 333-336). (BGC | NYU)


Find a map of the Sogdians (their territory, their movement, the “silk roads” they moved along) and put in on our Omeka site under the collection “Maps.” We will discuss what makes these maps effective or ineffective in class.

Class Resources

Prof. Balbale’s Historical Overview Powerpoint (BGC | NYU)

Kimon’s notes of conversation about audience:

Nancy asks the students who the audience should be?
Matthew – What is the level of presentation of the site?
Nancy – Certain amount of SEO, somewhere on the museum site. When launched it will be marketed
Elizabeth – Language localization?
Nancy – Speaks to audience question. Comes down to what should be translated from Chinese and Russian and what should be translated into Chinese and Russian
Matthew – Hip new thing and fits into global historical thought being in vogue. Non-euro-centric narrative. Nebulous of Silk Road.
Joanna – More in an academic context, not great for children and families
Leslie – Scholars and students, will be a web site and a nice new web site and digitization being in vogue. More information than entertainment
Julie – From a scholarly perspective unites Asian art fields
Summer – big access project, bridging together diverse resources from different locales, making a whole out of fragments
Soley – Making a web site tool for scholars, but there are hooks for non-scholars. Mythbusters of silk road
Nancy – museum is taking scholarly work and making it broad and accessible to interests that are varied and hard to predict. The challenge is to take those hooks and make them more accessible. Unpack those mystery for larger audiences. Don’t rush to pigeonhole the scholastic part into only those formats.
Abby – many audiences would want visually rich, scholarly accessible sites. We need more of this and you can bring different layers to a project that are differently accessible.


  1. sestets February 7, 2016 at 10:31 pm

    1. “People lived and died where they were born. The trade that took place was mainly local and often involved exchanges of goods, rather than the use of coins. Each community, then as now, had a distinct identify. Only when wars and political unrest forced people to leave their traditional homelands did these communities along the Silk Road absorb large numbers of refugees (Hansen 4).
    In this quote, Valerie Henson describes how the forces of war and migration catalyze cross-cultural exchange. How can current events enlighten the “flesh-and-blood” story (12) of the Silk Road, particularly referencing to the contemporary situation in Syria?

    2. Hansen describes the Silk Road as a cultural, ideological highway (5). How can we visualize the intangible transactions of the Silk Road in a virtual space? How can a website facilitate impactful interaction with these intangible goods (culture, idea, innovations, religion etc.).

    3. How can we use Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen’s own map to illuminate the misconceptions founded in his coining phrase “the Silk Road”? (6)

  2. clee February 9, 2016 at 1:11 am

    1. Because there are so many things occurred along the Silk Road, no only just the transaction goods among regions but also the cultural and civilizational influence. How are we going to organize all the discoveries—both tangible and intangible—visualized?

    2. “Silk in particular drew Pliny’s ire because he simply could not understand why the Romans imported fabric that left so much of the female body exposed: ‘So manifold is the labor employed, and so distant is the region of the globe drawn upon, to enable the Roman matron to flaunt transparent raiment in public.’ He railed against other imported goods as well—frankincense, amber, and tortoiseshell, among others—because consuming them, in his opinion, weakened Rome”(18). This is one of the intangible effects through the history of the Silk Road. How are we going to introduce such influence in this part of history?

    3. The introduction is mostly speaking from a Euro-centric point of view, like it first describes how Western travelers explored through the Silk Road path. Although it did introduce the transactions in China such as Zhang Qian’s travel (14), it was mostly just how Chinese goods were reached in Europe. If we are introduce this history, how are we going to pursue the whole picture?

  3. jbyrne February 9, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    1. Hansen points to a record of a dispute over compensation received for camels as evidence that “the Sogdian envoys had a clear sense of market values but also sufficient confidence in the predictability of the system to protest when the prices diverged from their expectations” (p. 17). However, de la Vaissière quotes from the Shiji (written in the same century) that a group identified as Sogdian traders “are skillful at commerce and will haggle over a fraction of a cent” (p.26). How can we present objects in this multi-layered context, and how do we communicate the possible biases of those putting words to paper (or wooden slips, or ceramics)?

    2. Hansen describes a marriage contract from the year 710 found at Mount Mugh that is “striking for what it reveals about the strict reciprocity of obligations in this society: just as a husband can end the marriage under certain circumstances, so too can a wife end the marriage under those same circumstances” (p. 133). What does this tell us about the status of women in pre-Islamic Sogdiana? Should we read this as evidence that women had social power on par with that of men? Or is this contract merely evidence that a culture of haggling and negotiating permeated social functions as well as commercial ones? How is this transformed after the arrival of Islam?

    3. de la Vaissière argues that the commercial exchange of the silk road grew out of an existing diplomatic system of exchange (p. 31). How do we see this play out as the Sogdian’s commercial and economic power grows? How do these diplomatic origins affect the Sogdians’ economic relationships with their neighbors?

  4. Leslie February 9, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    In the introduction, Hansen writes, “These immigrants brought their religions and languages to their new homes. Buddhism, originating in India and enjoying genuine popularity in China, certainly had the most influence, but Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and the Christian Church of the East, based in Syria, all gained followings. The people living along the Silk Road played a crucial role in transmitting, translating, and modifying these belief systems as they passed from one civilization to another” (4). It got me thinking about the traceable artifacts and sites that tell us about this mixture of religions. There’s the Manichean wall and the Christian church mentioned in the text. But what other types of artifacts have been found that point to all these religions (not in a “coexistence” sort of way, but individually)? Are there any in our object list on Omeka?

    In the chapter on Turfan, Hansen talks about the introduction of silver coins in the fourth century during Tang rule (94-95). I was wondering what the ramifications of introducing these coins had, besides the brief mention of higher interest rates for farmers (111). Did the introduction of silver coins hinder the movement of other material goods along the Silk Road? Were the images on the coins (and the coins themselves) a way of spreading culture, considering the fact that the king’s head and religious symbols were engraved on Sasanian coins, not unlike other cultural items traded along the Silk Road? Were they spreading a message?

    In Sogdian Traders, I was struck by the discussion of slaves: “We must also include slaves. The only Sogdian sales contract from Turfan is concerned with the sale of a young girl from Turkestan. Sogdian slaves are mentioned on several occasions in the documents from Turfan. Above all, in the Chinese capitals the Sogdians specialized in the importation of young female servers, musicians, singers and dancers who pleased the fashionable quarters of Chang’an” (175). The mention of dance reminded me of a section I read accidentally (I wasn’t paying close enough attention to page numbers and over read) about the emperor’s concubine Yang Guifei learning a Sogdian dance (139). Was dancing something used for private entertainment exclusively? Was it an action reserved for subjugated women?

  5. eneill February 9, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    Hansen mentions at several points objects crafted from paper scraps that were deconstructed to reveal textual evidence (pp. 83-85). Could these objects be analyzed for their own material significance, or is the earlier period of the texts automatically privileged? Were any photographs taken or drawings made before they were disassembled? If we use some of these texts in our project, how can we indicate the multiple uses of these papers?

    How can regulations and official documents shed light on everyday practices? The still-owed allotments mentioned on p. 92 illustrate a willingness to work around apparently strict laws about alloting land. The penalties on travelling without a permit to cities not on an official itinerary likewise suggests that such travel did happen enough to merit regular checks. Can prohibitions rather than direct evidence for behavior contribute to our ideas about such practices?

    The current evidence (and conjecture) about the “Silk Road” seems to be influenced by both ancient and modern stereotypes. Given that most writings about the Sogdians from ancient times are external texts (for example, Hansen p. 116), and modern scholarship about the Sogdians is based on fragmentary information and biased terminology like the term “Silk Road” itself, how can we create a balanced view of the ancient peoples of the area?

  6. achaffin February 9, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    Regarding the scraps of paper with writing on one side that were recycled into shoes or figurines, but then broken down and pieced together to form a document, how reliable is the content that results? Since they are not documents found intact, is the resulting information considered secondary?

    Hansen notes, “Nothing is more valuable than information extracted from trash, because no one has edited it in any way” (5). The value of remains being unedited is clear, but what if the trash was merely trash? I can’t help but think maybe someone was learning to write, which would therefore make the found trash be meaningless scribbles. Or would even that be of value?

    Hansen mentions a pawn ticket that is organized with multiple categories. Yet, out of the twenty-nine people listed, the occupation is included for only two individuals, a dryer and a maker of hairpins (151). Since these do not seem to be occupations of high esteem, what is the value in including this information? Was there a prejudice against dryers and hairpin makers that made them less reliable in pawning items?

  7. mdischner February 9, 2016 at 9:19 pm

    What more can we learn from these recycled pieces of paper? I know that in the case of vellum manuscripts researchers have been DNA testing the pages themselves to trace their origins. Is this viable with Chinese paper? Could we use a method like this to link scraps of writing thought unrelated?

    The history behind the Mount Mugh fortress, both in its role during the Islamic conquests and its rediscovery, shows both that at least a deal of luck in involved in this whole process and how important it is to cross analyze different histories. What other histories exist of this part of the world, and from what perspectives? Clearly we have no Sogdian authored history, but we have seen examples of Chinese and Arab accounts of the area. What about from the Indian subcontinent? With the prevalence of Buddhism along the Silk Road, clearly there was interaction, even if slight, between these regions. Are there any accounts of relations from that angle?

    Everything we have seen discounts the narrative of large scale trade along the Silk Road. Given this general misconception, of what value do we place on the trade that did occur? Clearly the route facilitated the spread of culture, but it certainly does not seem to have been of great economic importance. And yet, in histories of Europe, we often see an emphasis placed on the value of spices and silk coming from “The East.” If the Silk Road was not the great trade route we think it, where did these spices and silks come from?

  8. amalik February 9, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    In reference to the fragments of paper used to craft other objects, how reliable are the documents pieced together from those pieces of paper? How much importance can we truly give to those documents if they were recycled by the people themselves? Does the information gathered through these textual sources really provide sufficient insight into that world?

    Has there been any scientific testing done on these scraps of paper? Do we know the origins of the paper itself? How useful would the information gathered through such testing be in learning about the people?

    Why do you think the term “Silk Road” was coined when silk wasn’t the main object traded?

  9. Julie Bellemare February 9, 2016 at 9:57 pm

    On pages 106-111, Hansen argues that the Tang government was a major player in the trade through Turfan because it paid its soldiers defending the western frontier with silks, and flooded the market with Chinese goods. But de la Vaissière makes the point (admittedly, for an earlier period), that the arrival of Chinese objects did not create commercial activity ex nihilo (33). What percentage of the trade between China and Central Asia is attributable to the involvement of the Tang government?

    On page 118, Hansen analyzes the letter sent by a Sogdian woman named Miwnay to her husband. Did she write the letter herself, or did she have a scribe write it for her? What were literacy rates among Sogdians in China and in Sogdiana?

    On pages 104-6, de la Vaissière mentions Sogdian developments in agricultural production and engineering, such as the building of canals and walls. Aside from wall paintings, what evidence can we use to understand the Sogdians’ sedentary aspects?

  10. solsen February 9, 2016 at 10:48 pm

    Throughout the readings this week I was struck by the importance of fragments and oases.

    How can we use the strength of digital resources to show the interplay between these fixed points (oases) and the many possible routes between them?
    Also- the ways in which local and luxury goods passed through many hands before arriving in their final destinations.

    Also I love this quote: “Nothing is more valuable than information extracted from trash because no one has edited it in any way.” (Hansen 5)

    Hansen may be correct, to a point. Vaissière also both lauds the importance of fragments and presents the problem of insufficient systematic archeological evidence for things and the need for guesswork. However, as others have mentioned, how much may we trust fragmentary evidence to tell us the tale of the Sogdians?

    Can we perhaps view the documents that tell us the tale of the Sogdians less as fragments and more as palimpsests (especially the recycled paper used in tomb apparel/objects) to somehow get at the meaning of resources traded through many hands?

  11. Christina February 9, 2016 at 11:18 pm

    At one point in The Silk Road: A New History, Hansen writes that “Sogdians came to settle in Turfan during the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, and the pace of migration heightened considerably after the fall of the Sasanian Empire in 651 and the Islamic conquest of Samarkand in 712.” (pg. 98). What were some of the reasons Sogdians from Samarkand would immigrate to Turfan in those early years?

    If Sogdian art hardly depicts caravans or ships or merchants or commerce, as Frantz Grenet is quoted by Hansen (pg. 138-139), what does it depict? What does this lack of commerce displayed in art say about the Sogdians?

    How did the situations (political, social, economic, etc) in the civilizations/empires surrounding Sogdiana lead to Sogdians rise to prominent commercial presence?

  12. Sarah Fisk February 9, 2016 at 10:20 pm

    As referenced in Huili’s hagiography of Xuanzang’s journey (p.88 Hansen), how exaggerated are personal testimonies and accounts of the Silk Road?

    During Aurel Stein’s expeditions/excavations during the early 20th century what did Hansen mean when she stated “his excavations were imperfect by today’s standards?” (p. 12) Who funded his trips and what protocols did he follow? This pertains to similar archaeologists working in the same area/time.

    How and why do visual representations of Sogdians differ? refer to pg. 181 in Sogdian Traders

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