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Research project

Early Networks of the Afro-Eurasian ‘Silk Roads’

An archaeological analysis of ancient connectivity by land and sea

Marike van Aerde
Stichting Fonds Dr. Catharine van Tussenbroek (2015) Stichting Fonds Dr. Catharine van Tussenbroek (2015)
Byvanck Postdoctoral Fellowship, Leiden University (2017-2019)
Buddhist rock carvings from the Karakorum mountains (MANP)


This project analyses the archaeology of Afro-Eurasian trade networks via land and sea, often referred to separately as the Early Silk Roads and Indian Ocean trade routes, from the 3rd century BCE to the 6th century CE. Adopting a bottom-up approach to the archaeological data from multiple sites and routes, the research aims to document, reconstruct, and interpret trade connectivity between:

  1. the ancient Indian Peninsula,
  2. East African ports via maritime trade routes, and
  3. the Han-Tang Dynasties of China via land and mountain routes.

The main sites and focus points of the project are 1) previously unstudied rocks carvings from the Karakorum range between Gandhara and the Tarim Basin (incl. early Buddhist imagery, trade caravan and hunting scenes, and zoomorphic carvings); 2) analysis and comparison of ancient ports and trade centres across the Indian Peninsula (incl. Arikamedu, Odisha, Mathura, the Gujurat and Gandhara regions); 3) analysis and comparison of ancient ports from East Africa (incl. Berenike, Myos Hormos, and Adulis) and their maritime connection with the Indian Peninsula.

The project  steps away from traditional East-West, center-periphery dichotomies and the central role of imperial power blocks, which have formed the basis of many historical narratives, especially those concerning the early Silk Roads and Indian Ocean routes. This project focuses primarily on the archaeological evidence of the routes, ports, and trading posts themselves, where the majority of trading and exchange took place. The documentation of archaeological sites and finds from these ‘spaces in between’ often remain neglected in wider Silk Roads studies, yet they can provide crucial evidence for reconstructing the actual networks. This is a necessary step for interpreting and understanding the scope of early Afro-Eurasian connectivity and the many variables involved in this ancient, intercultural process.

Additional focus points throughout the project are:

  1. the role of early Buddhism in the spread and development of the trade connections across the Indian Peninsula and to China, based on archaeological data instead of predominantly textual references;
  2. focus on cultural heritage connections between past and present, and the preservation of endangered archaeological sites through active output, such as media and digital sources; 
  3. active student participation in both documentation and interpretation of sites and data, and reconstruction of trade routes via land and sea.      
Amphorae at the Egyptian-Roman port of Myos Hormos at the Red Sea coast (in situ)

Why Leiden University?

Leiden University’s Faculty of Archaeology represents a wide range of expertise required for this research. The project collaborates with scholars of the Near East, Mediterranean and Byzantine Archaeology Departments, and with Leiden University’s International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS).  Through its research focus on routes and connectivity as well as heritage preservation, the project bridges both regions and chronologies, and contributes to the Faculty’s large-scale and interdisciplinary contexts of studying the global ancient world and the development of worldwide cultural heritage management.

The project offers a specialised seminar lecture course on the Archaeology of the Silk Roads for Leiden BA archaeology and Honours College students, in collaboration with the Leiden University Faculty of Global Affairs in The Hague. Currently, multiple BA and (R)MA students contribute to the ongoing research of the project through data analysis and theses on Karakorum rock carvings, ancient Indian ports, and maritime trade in East Africa.  

The project includes the following methods: documentation and interpretation of specific excavations (old and new), and analysis objects and architectural remains in museums, private collections and in situ (wherever possible), including material property and provenance analyses; digitalisation of datasets for database analysis; comparative studies of object and architectural properties, style and iconography; satellite footage, aerial analysis, and GIS methods to investigate mountain routes through coordinates and excavation documentation. Results will include object and architecture interpretations, updated chronologies, and reconstructions of routes/connections between especially the Indian Peninsula, Western China and the ancient ports of East Africa based on the empirical archaeological evidence gathered and studied.  

Many archaeological objects from current Indian/Pakistani and East African sites (of both trade centres and coastal ports) are no longer in situ, but have since the 19th century been archived in museums worldwide. Along with the removal of objects from find-spots, such studies often led to misinterpretation/lack of contextual documentation. Since the mid-twentieth century new fieldwork has been conducted in these region, yet archaeological studies usually focus on individual sites only, while wider-scope Silk Road studies only sporadically refer to archaeological data and remain rooted in traditional West-East, center-periphery narratives.

The earliest Afro-Eurasian trade connections have rarely been analysed in the context of early Silk Roads developments between regions on a wider scale; this project is focused especially on this lacuna. Moreover, the project’s focus on rarely interpreted archaeological data and excavations will contribute significant new insights in the fields of both ancient Silk Roads archaeology and global history studies. Through the project’s identification of possible new routes and sites, new excavations, surveys and geophysical analyses, along with new international collaborations, will likewise be established.

The development of the earliest Silk Roads has had an enormous impact on the Afro-Eurasian continents, yet due to prevailing academic challenges there are still significant gaps in our knowledge of their spread and influence. This study aims to contribute to an increased understanding of how cultural connectivity developed on a global scale in these ancient regions and how such processes of interaction have shaped the world as we know it today. Taking a bottom-up, data-focused approach herein is crucial. 

Cultural heritage preservation plays a significant role in this project. Political unrest in various regions has led to the destruction and continued threat of important sites (incl. the Karakorum mountains). The project aims to establish academic connections with international scholars and students to increase exchange, expand mutual knowledge and output, and encourage heritage preservation. 

Student participation is an important component of this project. Apart from the traditional academic and educational output, the project also aims to develop virtual media tools for educational/entertainment output, based on its archaeological research.

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