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Professor Alison Betts, University of Sydney, 18 November 2016

MIKE PICKERING: Welcome everyone. Welcome to the National Museum and welcome to our very successful series of lectures. My name is Mike Pickering. I’m the Head of Research here at the Museum and the supervising curator for the A History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition. It’s not because I was an expert in anything in the exhibition; it’s just that I beat every other curator to get involved because the objects were just so great.

I’d certainly like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which the Museum sits and pay the Museum’s respects and my respects to the elders, both past and present, and the emerging elders. Let’s give the kids a go.

Welcome to our fifth presentation in our A History of the World in 100 Objects lecture series. Today we have Professor Alison Betts from Sydney University exploring the trading tales of the Silk Road, from pre-history to the Han and Roman empires. Alison is an archaeologist who has led field expeditions along the Silk Road for more than 35 years. She’s worked on the pre-history of Eastern Jordan, and her current projects include a study of ancient Khorezm and field work in Xinjiang and Kashmir. She has a keen interest in the study of nomadic people as well as a Professor of Silk Road Studies at Sydney University. Alison also holds adjunct professorial positions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the University of Kashmir. So if you’d join me in welcoming Professor Betts to the stage, and I shall hand over to you now.

ALISON BETTS: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here and to talk about my favourite subject. It’s a very big subject, so sit down because we’ve got a lot of work to do, or a lot of pleasure actually. This is going to be a very quick gallop through the very, very extensive story of the Silk Roads, bits of it, and not just about the Silk Roads themselves but how they’ve impacted on our lives in a broader sense, what I call often, the unintended consequences.

The Silk Roads writ large. Now to begin with, these, of course, are what we understand to be the Silk Roads. They start out in Central China. They carry across through this really very narrow corridor. You have to understand that to the north of the Gobi Desert and then an awful lot of difficult places; to the south there’s the Tibetan Plateau and an awful lot of difficult places; and then the Himalayas. So to get out of China is actually really quite difficult and even along the narrow roads of possibility there are still deserts and predatory peoples. It’s actually quite difficult for China to reach out to the West and so there’s been a certain separation, at least there was back into pre-history, and it took quite a long time for Western influence to meet with Chinese imperial development. We’re going to look at this story gradually through time.

This is the [inaudible] of the great Silk Roads, the story of camels and silk and treasure; fine and wonderful things that are moving from one place to another, particularly because, of course, at one end you have the rise of the Roman Empire and a great demand for elite goods and at the other hand you have the well-developed Chinese Empire, by this time under the Han dynasty. Great, powerful empires have elites who demand goods in order to be able to demonstrate their power and prestige and position, so there’s big markets and they have big money, and a lot of things are exchanging. But it’s not just the big stuff. It’s not just the gems, rare essences, wild beasts, eunuchs, ivory, ebony and so on; it’s rather more mundane things that move as well.

Now the story of east-west contact, I’m just going to show you very quickly some maps. This is where it begins, where you get the domestication of certain cereals: peas and some legumes; and then the cereals wheat and barley in Western Asia; and on the other side in China the domestication of millet and rice. The way in which we can track these very first contacts when East first met West is not through the material culture of people finding a pottery vessel that comes from China in your excavation in Western Asia; it’s looking at the traces of the seeds where you find these two kinds of domesticates in one context, long before you can see any other evidence for cultural contact. So this is the very beginning.

In the next stage there is a very dynamic period of activity among the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe, and they start to get interested in metallurgy. Their very early developments of metallurgy spread very rapidly down into the south, and also across into China where people have figured out how to smelt copper; but they haven’t really got very sophisticated in terms of their bronze working, and they get a big boost when these ideas get brought in from Eurasia where they’ve figured it out a bit more rapidly.

And the other thing is that the people of Eurasia, because they were moving around, they used to move their goods on wooden wagons with solid wheels. Now you can imagine in the Eurasian mud [when] it rains, pushing these things, they get stuck, and someone sits down and scratches their head and says, ‘There’s got to be a better way of doing this’. Someone up there invented the spoked wheel about the same time they also domesticated the horse and then someone again was thinking, ‘One or two cattle and slow wagons, let’s put the horse in,’ and they invented what was essentially the Ferrari of the time; because they suddenly found that instead of being able to move their houses around, the young men could get on these things and they could gallop all over the place. They could wheel, they could turn and they’d made a weapon of war. Maybe they hadn’t intended to but that’s what they did. So the chariot spreads very, very rapidly as a weapon of war essentially, throughout the ancient world.

And then there’s another phase also in the Bronze Age where down in the south you get these little oases, and these begin to develop early proto-civilisation coincidentally at the same time as the rise of the very early civilisations in the Indus Valley, the Harappan Indus Valley civilisation and an early Mesopotamian development. These people in the oases, they didn’t reach the same level because their oases were rather restricted, but they had tremendous resources at their fingertips. They had gold, they had silver, they had exotic gemstones, and they very rapidly developed trade networks that spread out to the south into the Indus, down into Iran, and across to Mesopotamia from whence they went further on into Egypt, which again was rising at this time.

Finally, after all these routes had begun to be opened up on a smaller scale with quite local movement, you get the rise of the big empires, and here I’ve put at the top [points to a slide]: the Persians, and then Alexander, and then the Romans; and on the other side, the Han empire. By this time you have four great empires controlling the whole of northern Asia. You have the Han Chinese in the Far East and then you have a group of people called the Kushans who you may not be so familiar with. Then you have the Persians, the Persians Hussainians; the Romans, so that all across this whole area four massive empires with very powerful military controls keeping an eye on things, ensuring stability; and it’s really good for business. This is why you see at this time about 2000 years ago, this enormous flourish of overland trade, right from the Pacific almost up to the Atlantic.

The Silk Road. Well, we think about this typical picture: weary camel trains trudging across endless deserts, but it wasn’t exactly like that. There was never one camel train that began in China and moved all the way across to the West; it was what we call down the line. One group of people would move from one oasis to another and then exchange their goods; and then pick up some more goods and go back; and it would move in sections as people lived and worked within the areas of desert and mountain that they were familiar with. Not all goods were traded from one end to the other because some would be for markets in the middle, or would take a side route down to India, or a side route north up into the Eurasian Steppes; and what we call the Amber route up towards Russia. Goods moved by specialised merchants, also by private individuals and by the nomadic peoples, because all of this land was filled with very highly active nomadic groups; and also gift exchange, diplomatic gift exchange just for doing business, oiling the wheels of business; commerce and daily life, and then other miscellaneous means.

If we look back into prehistoric times [points to a slide]: the cereals, very briefly. As I said, wheat and barley domesticated by about 8000 [BCE] in western Asia, spreads out from there into Europe and across into what is now northern Turkmenistan where it settles quite early; and across northern Iran and down into Pakistan, popping up eventually in the Indus Valley civilisations. On the other side you have the millet in the north along the Yellow River, and the rice down in the south in the Yangtze; and then they begin to filter out, the rice possibly to the south down towards India, but the millet certainly due straight west across the line of what became the Silk Roads. This is where we have very, very recently, like only the past two or three years, documented where these things pretty much first met; and it’s a little less than 5000 years ago, what we call the ‘third millennium BC’, sometime around then. That’s the first time when East is documented as truly meeting West.

Then we get this Bronze Age steppic technology [points to a slide]. As I said, you have the solid wheeled wagons. These examples are taken from Greece and from Pakistan. Because they were heavy with the solid wheels, they had to be drawn by oxen. What happened was that all of this began in the Ural Mountains, just right in the middle of the slide where the yellow and the orange meet [points to a slide], and then the technologies were developed in this area. Now the reason they were developed in this area is because there was a high concentration of copper: copper sources, copper resources, and people began to exploit those. It’s also the area where the wild horses lived naturally and were first domesticated. You have the combination of the domestication of the horse and the development of elaborate copper metallurgy and bronze, therefore bronze metallurgy.

People who had figured this out then gradually spread eastwards to the mountains on the far western side of Xinjiang. These people are known as the Sintashta culture after the site, a variant of what we call the Andronovo; and the Andronovo are the people who carry this material right across to the east where eventually it meets up with people who have developed in the Yellow River valley; and gradually moved further to the west. At some point in Xinjiang, which is far western China, the two of them actually meet, so a little bit further east than the question of the cereals, but again they meet somewhere over there. Here are burials from Sintashta [points to a slide] where you can see that the people were buried with the horses and with the spoked-wheeled chariot.

As I said, they had access to extensive metal resources and they became very, very clever at working copper into high quality bronzes. They then went in search of other copper resources, and they started to find those as they went further to the east. They found them in western China. [points to a slide] This is a Bronze Age copper mine in western China, in Xinjiang, the Nulasai Copper Mine; and you can see here the very basic stone tools that were used to mine the copper, these hammer stones; and you can see there in that middle slide the green which shows you very clearly that you’re dealing with copper ore.

Now, in China the first known vessels were found in the middle Yellow River Valley; but it was later on, in what is known as the Xia dynasty … but it was later on in the Shang dynasty which is the first really big dynastic period in China that they got really, really good at bronze casting; and quite a lot of this rich development was based on the fact that they learned many skills from the Eurasian prior development of technology. So it was very important as part of the rise of the state in China.

The spoke-wheeled chariot also spread very, very rapidly. Here you can see it at 2000 up in the Urals [points to a slide] and we find it by 1500 down in Egypt, and about the same time or a little earlier down in China. Very, very popular. Went very, very fast across the world.

And then the oases settlements here down in the south [points to a slide], something that’s probably not very well known either. This is what we call the Bactria-Margiana culture. It’s a little heavy handed. It’s a very special area just north of the north Iranian and Afghanistan mountains where you have permanent glaciers and rivers that run down from the glaciers with snow melt, ending up in oases in the desert sands. Early civilisations – proto-civilisations developed here, and as I said, they were very, very rich in natural resources. They had beautiful monumental buildings, elaborate material culture and they reached out right across to Mesopotamia, down to the Indus, and all the way across into Iran. Gold, copper, semi-precious stones; many, many fine things.

Here is a map [points to a slide], and this was drawn some time ago actually. If you drew this map now, it would probably be much, much fuller, but it gives you an idea of the trade and exchange networks that we’ve been able to document as archaeologists; finding materials that we know come from the oases down in these other areas and in the reverse as well; things going back up. But this time the goods are not … there is no connection across into China. This is the interesting thing. It’s all down to the south and to the west.

This is one of the most famous ones [points to a slide], lapis lazuli, which is only found in one tiny little location in a really, really remote, mountainous part of north-eastern Afghanistan, Badakhshan, yet it was very highly prized. You find it in early Mesopotamia and also across into Egypt, this beautiful blue stone; and because it is only found in this one location it’s very easy to map its transition across to the East. We know that there was formal trade going on because we find these merchants’ seals. These ones are all found in these oases in Central Asia. There are some from Mesopotamia, some from south-east Iran, and the one with the elephant which comes very distinctively from the Indus Valley. So this can help us to document this long-distance trade.

Then we get onto the later periods when we have the idea of ‘the Silk Road’. So that was the proto-Silk Road, the pre-history of the Silk Road. This is the period that you would really consider to be, if you think about the Silk Roads, the main period.

What influenced the trade? Well, landscape because the landscape is very difficult. There’s mountains, there’s deserts, there’s great big gaps between. It’s not all green rolling fields, it’s difficult country to move across; and the politics of the area, because you have a whole lot of different people. Often they’re fighting each other, they’re disagreeing with each other, you have predatory nomads all the way around the edge. It’s complicated to be a merchant on the Silk Road. Basic economics as well.

Looking at the landscape [points to a slide], these are the kinds of routes that they had to go through, areas through settled lands. Of course, if you’re going through settled lands often the local rulers will charge you tax, so even settled lands are not always such a good idea to cross through. Across deserts, obvious hazards. Over high mountain passes, some of them really, really high to the point where you’ve got risk of altitude sickness, and of course, only passable at certain times of year; and then along the rivers as well, which can be good. They can ease passage but, of course, they can also be hazardous as well.

Through settled lands, opportunities to trade along the route, but of course, the risk of attack also and the question of tax. Deserts, risk of getting lost, running out of water, attack, few opportunities for trade. Over mountain passes, avalanches and storms, also risk of attack, few opportunities for trade on the mountain passes there. Along rivers, vessels might sink, again you’re going to be attacked, and some opportunities for trade. It’s a difficult business along the Silk Road. You had to be quite robust but people did because there was a lot of profit to be had in it.

The mechanics of it. Trades going through the deserts had to be moved, of course, in caravans from oasis to oasis, and once the caravan stopped in the caravanserais they had opportunities for trade and would pick up and dispose of goods at the bazaars. Today still in Central Asia everything is focused around the bazaar. It’s only very recently that you actually find shops in any of the Central Asian towns. If you want to go and buy anything you go to the central bazaar and everything is there.

If you’re passing through western China you come out along the northern line of the mountains fringing the Tibetan plateau, then you come to the Tarim Basin and the Tarim Basin includes the Taklamakan desert which they say if you go into it, you won’t come out. It’s one of the truly hazardous deserts. You go around the edges of it but even then it still will catch you out. You can see here clearly the oases along the southern route or along the northern route around the Tarim, but it was necessary to navigate in order to get through this difficult area.

Politics. Well, at times of instability, nomad incursions and decline of empire the trade routes were very vulnerable, but of course, in times of strong political control they had the opportunity to flourish. [points to a slide] This is the time that I told you about when only four empires held all the lands between the Atlantic and the Pacific and there was great demand for luxury goods and strong control over the trade routes. By around the fourth century the land routes began to be taken over by waves of nomadic invaders. Let’s just go back to this one here [points to a slide], because I wanted to talk a little bit about this.

This is really the big time of the heartland of the Silk Roads. You can see here the empires: the Roman Empire over in the west, then the Parthians and Sasanians. They’re in small print there but you can see them. They are in what we now know to be Iran, ancient Persia; and then the Kushans who were originally nomads, were living on the Chinese borderlands and were chased out by another group of nomads. The Kushans were originally people called the Yuezhi. They were chased out by a group of people called the Xiongnu who were further to the north; and they migrated to the west, ended up around the land of Samarkand today, and then moved down to the south which is something fairly unusual. They actually settled and formed an imperial power. They’re not very well known but they’re extremely important because the Kushans were the pivot around which everything moved in these areas. So the Kushan empire.

Now then, after this very, very strong period of development you then get onto a period when things began to go a little awry, and you start to get waves of nomads coming down from the north. Here I’ve just put this slide up from one of my teaching slides because it shows some of the complexity of it. You have the Sasanians and the Kushano-Sasanians who were the powers in Persia, and then you start to get these other groups coming in: the Hyonites, the Kidarites, the Hephthalites. The Hephthalites are also known as the Huns although they’re not quite the same Huns who we know of turning up in Europe but they’re probably related; and then the Turks. Up in the areas north of Mongolia there was this great pool of people. Those lands are vast although they’re occupied mainly by nomadic peoples. This great pool of people who just sent out waves – and of course, why did they come out? They came out because the Silk Roads were extremely attractive. There was a tremendous body of trade going on, there was a lot of raiding to be done, interesting things could be had and so this was a great incentive for people to move down. So we see these waves of people coming down.

And then after the Turks we then see a rise again in China, under the Tang dynasty when the Chinese begin to take control again of the western areas; and then from the west we get the Arab invasions coming in, again taking over everything and breaking down the structure before building it up again. This is just to show you Central Asia under the Hephthalites, the Huns [points to a slide]. They took over all of that middle section and they didn’t settle. Unlike the Kushans they didn’t settle, and so times were uncertain in these periods. Trade was not good.

And then under the Tang dynasty rulers the western routes were again stabilised, and you see the extension out into the west again [points to a slide]. You can see the red line for the previous dynasty, and then the Tang who take over, right the way across what is up to the borders of modern China today, and up to the borders of Samarkand. Then there’s another revival up again in the time of the Mongols. Now you would think, ‘Oh the Mongols are predatory. Goodness, you know, this wouldn’t have been a good time’. But in fact, once they had taken over and had control of the lands they held it very, very firmly. There’s this famous saying, ‘A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm’. They held it tightly and they controlled it so that once again there was a resurgence of trade under the Mongols in the 13th century. We’re not going to go into that but I just show you these for the big patterns.

And then the economics. Well, the economics of trade are linked to politics but they also have their own variations. Luxury goods, of course, are always in demand by elites. Business is best under the larger empires when there’s a strongly hierarchical society. There’s a lot of rich people under the rulers who want to demonstrate their wealth, and then there’s also goods for practical uses. These will always be in demand by anyone who has a little bit of money: upper, middle and occasionally lower class people as well, depending on some essentials they may need from somewhere else. This is a list of things that were moving along the Silk Road. This is actually in the Islamic period under the Arabs. You don’t need to look at all this but you can just get an idea of the things that are moving in these areas. Amber, horse hides, honey, striped cloth, blankets, silken fabrics, arms, swords, copper, iron, meats, melons, and so on and so forth.

Now this is an interesting thing, the Sogdians took over as the specialists in trade along the Silk Road in the first few centuries AD. From about the fifth to the eighth we have their control, and they were specialists. This is what was said about them: they were specialist merchants, they had their base in Samarkand and from there they spread out across into China, managing the trade along the road. The winning of profits is considered by most of the inhabitants an excellent thing, and the young men study commerce.

The origins of the Sogdians. Well, we have a description of them: deep set eyes, profuse beards and whiskers, and skilful at commerce; but they emerged from somewhere around the Samarkand area, what is now modern south-eastern Uzbekistan. We know of them being highly active in the Han period. They adapted a lot of their trade. They developed themselves out of the commerce that was being carried on by the Kushan Empire in and around Afghanistan, and gradually developed into taking over much of this trade. So we see here in Bactria and Gandhara merchants discovered how much they will be able to benefit by developing a market for Chinese silk going into India, Iran and the Near East.

And these silks were being brought in by the embassies as gifts, then sold on because they were of very, very high value; and then someone figured out that we could actually go back to the source and begin to bring these things out. Truly, the Silk Road was developed along these lines. So then the Sogdians picked up this practice and started to move other goods along the road as well, following the Kushan example and developing their own power.

This is something that is a bit special about the Tarim Basin [points to a slide]. The Tarim Basin has very, very remarkable organic preservation. It’s very hot and dry; and the sands of the desert are very saline so that when things get lost in the desert often they are preserved almost completely. We have an incredible series of burials from there with 90 per cent organic preservation, and accidentally other things have survived as well. One collection is these very famous Sogdian ancient letters. The postman got lost, probably terminally [laughter] and we have the letters. This is just to show you the depth of penetration of the Sogdians into China.

These are paper documents and some of them also on wood. They were found at the beginning of the 20th century by Sir Aurel Stein who was one of the great explorers on the Silk Road; and they were brought five letters and a number of fragments. They were brought out to the British Museum, they were then able to be read and they’re quite remarkable correspondence. Largely reports to wealthy Sogdian merchants by their representatives abroad but some of them are personal as well. This is what they look like [points to a slide]: an outer envelope with a delivery address in Samarkand and the letter itself folded up. The one in red is a personal letter from a very unfortunate woman who was taken out by her husband and then left in one of these oases towns. He didn’t come back for her and she’s been writing letters asking, ‘Please bring me back, bring me back, bring me back’ and he doesn’t. She says, ‘I tried to get help; no one would help me,’ and then finally she says, ‘Surely the gods were angry with me on the day when I did your bidding’. This is to her husband. ‘I would rather be a dog’s or a pig’s wife than yours,’ she says [laughter]; but the letter never got delivered so he never knew. Yes, personal. She was fed up.

Then you have diplomacy. [points to a slide] This is a very, very fine painting that has been recovered from Afrasiyab in old Samarkand which shows diplomatic missions coming into Samarkand from various places including the Koreans, the Turks and the Chinese; visiting as part of the – so it’s not just trade but this is political diplomacy which is part of the trade connections. We all understand that. This goes on today as well. [points to a slide] And here we can see the reconstructions of the Chinese and the Koreans.

But it wasn’t just the Sogdians, the town folk who were engaged in trade; the nomads did as well. They were moving around all over the place, and when they weren’t raiding they were also carrying goods with them for exchange and profit, or they might raid and then sell the stuff. They traded goods from the Steppe for oasis products and luxury items, sometimes specially manufactured for their particular market. The Greeks for example, in other parts of the world, a bit off the Silk Road, were manufacturing gold objects around the Black Sea, specifically for the Sithians, probably like this little gold piece up there [points to a slide]. I show you here a couple of frontier fortresses between the Aral and the Caspian seas which were designed to negotiate between the nomads and the settled peoples.

Now a broader impact of trade networks – cultural diffusion. [points to a slide] Here you can see a burial from the Tarim Basin. Look at the state of preservation of the fabrics, everything. It’s quite amazing. But this detail shows something on the detail of the brocade which is putti, they’re cupids. These are purely Mediterranean imageries. Of course, Alexander’s armies introduced Hellenistic culture to Central Asia but the trade networks dispersed it much, much more widely. This is the city of Ai Khanoum in northern Afghanistan [points to a slide] which is a complete Greek city. We have here textiles, again remarkably preserved from the Tarim Basin, and they’re believed probably to have actually been taken from Ai Khanoum when it was sacked and reused as garments along the Silk Roads. They are very clearly classical motifs. There’s a centaur and this chap down the bottom with the blue eyes is very, very western in appearance.

Then we have the translation of art styles and the famous Gandharan style which blends Indian styles from the rise of Buddhism in India with the classical style. [points to a slide] I think you can see in the middle here in particular, this head with the way that it’s turned is very, very classical in style, but you can see that it’s also very Indian in its design and presentation. The famous Gandharan style.

Religion. When people are moving they take their beliefs and practices with them. Just a quick diversion up to south of the Aral Sea here [points to a slide]. This is the site that I’ve actually been working on myself. This is about the religion of Zoroastrianism which the Persians brought to this part of the world. This area of ancient Horezmia was under the Achaemenids in the sixth century BC and they brought Zoroastrianism with them, and it developed. Zoroastrianism is characterised by veneration of fire and exposure of the dead, followed by ossuary burial. This is our site here [points to a slide] – it’s a royal city. One of the things about it is that it has the most spectacular wall paintings. One of the main images that we found very, very recently is this six metre high figure of what we believe to be the Zoroastrian god, Sraosha. The embroidery down the front of his tunic features these little figures which are roosters, but they are roosters disguised as Zoroastrian priests. They have the ritual padam and the barsom; the bundle of twigs, which indicates that they are Zoroastrian priests.

Now, this is from the first century BCE. We find the same motif on tomb architecture in China in the sixth century CE. So you’re seeing these spreads of religion going across. This is Zoroastrianism. Buddhism comes from the other direction. Buddhism was developed in northern India and then spread up through, by means of the Kushan Empire, round the western end of the Himalayas and then back into China through the Tarim Basin. Here you can see the spread [points to a slide]. It was particularly at the time of the Silk Roads, under the Kushans who favoured Buddhism as a formal religion. Here are the famous Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan which illustrate the spread to the north, and at the end of the Silk Road the site of Dunhuang which is very famous for its Buddhist monasteries. What used to happen was that the monasteries would set up in the oases and people would come, and as they rested in the oases you would also get the developments of the markets, so that the markets and the monasteries would become part of the same complex.

Christianity comes in from the west by about the seventh century in the form of an Astorian church, then finally the Islamic conquest of Central Asia goes up to the far western borders of China, and then gradually expands along the other parts of the Silk Road through trade and diplomatic exchange. So, initially it comes through conquest up to Xinjiang where the conquest effectively stops but then it spreads through other means more widely later.

Technology. Paper invented in ancient China during the Han dynasty and spread to the West. The secret of silk, of course, this is a very famous story, silk being – well, there’s a famous mythology around it, but we don’t actually know how the secret of silk was distributed – but it comes in the first few centuries CE during the time of the Silk Roads. Other things. Gunpowder mainly spread with the Mongols, so later on.

Disease. Where people travel long distances and gather together in crowds, disease will spread. Leprosy is one of the diseases that spread along the road that we know of. Bubonic plague, also carried by the armies, particularly the Mongols later on so again, this is not at the full time of the Silk Roads. It was carried by ship into Italy from whence it spread all the way across Europe.

Medicine. Aspects of Chinese medical practise certainly travelled west by the Han period but most of the really important medical developments took place under Islam and then spread across into medieval Europe.

Genetics. Crowds of mingling strangers can cause problems in spreading disease and conflict but so can isolation. Marco Polo noted the unusual practice in the isolated oases in the Tarim Basin. Guests were invited to spend the night with the wife of the host. Well, there’s actually a really good reason for this. It’s known ethnographically in people among remote locations simply because there is a great risk of in-breeding in these very, very small communities, and this helps to secure a wider gene pool. So it wasn’t such a silly idea after all.

Music, of course, spread. I’m not going to give you any details of that but people carry music with them wherever they go. They sing, they bring their instruments to amuse themselves on the long nights on the caravan, and various types of music spread and dispersed.

Food. Fruits were a major product of Central Asian oases were widely traded. The melons of Hami were especially famous. I can tell you that the melons of Hami are still delicious. Central Asia is a heartland of the early fruit development and there’s the most wonderful fruits there. They’re the best fruits in the world really because in many cases they’re still unadulterated, they’re sun ripened and they’re sweet. They’re delicious.

Cuisine. People like to keep their home cooking. My husband is Italian. It’s well known that the Italians never travel anywhere without pasta because you can’t get proper pasta anywhere else [laughter]. You can imagine that the people along the Silk Road did the same thing. You know, ‘I don’t want to eat foreign food, I want to eat my own food’. So they brought food customs along with them and then they spread and exchanged.

It may seem obvious but it is actually very, very important to see the Silk Roads as means of exchanging, facilitating exchanges, very far beyond simply the trade goods that were carried along them. They were for ideas. They exchanged ideas. They exchanged many good things and many not so good things as well; but this opening up of the human contact between East and West was absolutely critical in a very, very wide range of things that impacted on our life today and through history back in time.

Thank you.

MIKE PICKERING: Thank you. I must admit that having looked at maps of the world for far too long over the years, that part of Central Asia was the land where not much happened in my concept of the world; and in 45 minutes or whatever, you’ve really blown that concept out of the water, so thank you very much. We do have time for some questions if anybody would like to –

QUESTION: Thank you Alison, what a wonderful experience. I’d just like to ask what can we learn from what you’ve just told us? What can we learn and use today? And also if we could find out a little bit more about what happened in the past, maybe it would help some of us now.

ALISON BETTS: Well, the one thing we need to watch out for is that the Silk Roads are reviving. I don’t know if any of you have heard of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy, but what we really need to do is just to know our history. We need to know about the history, most particularly of Central Asia which is an area that, as you say, not many people know about. Everyone says, ‘Oh it’s just the stans’. It’s actually quite complicated; the relationships across from China, the relationships China has with Xinjiang and the relationships that China has with the former Soviet Union; the lands of the former Soviet Union and Russia today, those are the things that we need to keep an eye on, about how things develop. We shouldn’t forget about this part of the world because it’s not a backwater and it’s certainly about to become something, a back door if you like, to some very, very important political and economic developments in the next few decades.

QUESTION: You mentioned at the beginning, the exchange of cereals and legumes between the two ends of the Silk Road. You didn’t mention rhubarb. Did that come later? [laughter] Did that come with the Mongols when they went west?

ALISON BETTS: Well, to be honest, I hadn’t looked at rhubarb. It wouldn’t preserve in the same way in the carbonised form, and so we would have to look for it as phytoliths which I’m sure would survive very well because I understand that rhubarb – it’s got a very sharp, kind of, granular content to it so it can be quite difficult to digest. But it’s a question of what our paleobotanists can come up with. You may know more about rhubarb than me; I’m not certain. I don’t know.

QUESTION: Well, I like eating it [laughter]. My understanding is that it was traded extensively in medieval times as a medicinal, as a laxative basically.

ALISON BETTS: Well, that would work, yes. I don’t know. I can’t tell you off the top of my head about rhubarb, but it is certainly something I will go away and look more about. But I can well believe that it would certainly have been used medicinally. I mean the Chinese used an enormous array of plants medicinally and the Arabs did too. They collected a great deal of plants. So yes I can imagine that that would have been the case. But I will look it up.

MIKE PICKERING: You’ll probably find rhubarb is linked to politics.

QUESTION: With our modern knowledge of genetics we can see the benefits of the host offering the hospitality of the bed [inaudible], but what was their perceived gain from that?

ALISON BETTS: Well, it’s an interesting question because it does occur in a number of remote communities, so in some way or another it must have been observed that it was not such a bad thing to do; that certain populations were flourishing simply because of that cultural practice. That’s the only way that it can be explained I think, and people are aware. If you start to end up with a large number of your children really not looking the way that they ought to do, they don’t quite understand why that is, but it may be that the other people are – you could put it in different ways. You can say, perhaps we are appeasing the gods by allowing this to happen and these people have not appeased the gods, something like that, but because it happens coincidentally in a number of different locations among different communities who have no knowledge of why that should be, we have to believe that it is something that does develop out of selective advantage.

QUESTION: The question I would like to ask Professor Betts is about bubonic plague. I didn’t quite catch that. My understanding is that bubonic plague originated in Africa.

ALISON BETTS: No, no, the fleas live on marmots up in the Steppe and presumably the people up there have become fairly immune to it. They’ve been living with it for a long, long time. Of course, they all wore fur coats and they didn’t wash, and so the fleas were living particularly on the Mongols who were carrying these things. So the Mongol armies carried them right the way up to the Black Sea and then they started to encounter populations that had no resistance. They began to develop sickness, and then there was the story, supposedly, of throwing the corpses over the walls of the besieged city, such that the people within the city all got sick. Eventually the Italians who were trading up in the Black Sea got in their ships and went away, and unfortunately carried this plague back to Italy from whence it spread across into Europe.

QUESTION: And this is the Black Death?


QUESTION: So the people from the East were then, by this time, immune?



ALISON BETTS: Because it’s still endemic there. I mean people do pick it up. There was a case around Lake Issyk-Kul a couple of years ago that I heard about, where a young man had killed a marmot and then became infected but perhaps around there they don’t have the resistance in the same way because they haven’t been exposed so much. But certainly up in Mongolia they must have quite substantial resistance.

QUESTION: Thank you for that.

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Date published: 19 September 2017

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