Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Routes of Exchange, Roots of Connectivity

The archaeology of Afro-Eurasian networks across land and sea
(1st millennium CE)

Marike van Aerde
Stichting Fonds Dr. Catharine van Tussenbroek (2015) Stichting Fonds Dr. Catharine van Tussenbroek (2015)
Byvanck Postdoctoral Fellowship, Leiden University (2017-2019)
Grad students Rishika Dhumal and Sam Botan documenting Indian and East African ceramics in the lab.


This project sets out to reconstruct and analyse archaeological evidence of trade networks between the Indian Subcontinent and East Africa in the early 1st millennium CE. This is to be achieved by means of three main focus points:

  1. Connecting and expanding the archaeological records of trade centres and networks across the Indian Subcontinent from ca. 3rd century BCE-early 1st millennium CE (including site and object analyses as well as new fieldwork at Gujarat, Orissa, South India and Sri Lanka).
  2. The documentation and interpretation of currently threatened petroglyphs along the Karakorum mountain range, Pakistan, in order to study the role of Buddhism in line with the first expansion of trade routes through the Himalayas.
  3. Mapping out routes of exchange between East Africa and the Indian Subcontinent through quantitative and qualitative analyses of the archaeological records of multiple Indian and African trade ports along the Indian Ocean coasts, focussed on comprehensive datasets of ceramics, beads, coins, and related material objects from diverse sites.

The project currently pursues fieldwork in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and aims to establish connections for research at sites in e.g. Egypt and Kenya (Zanzibar). The project builds and expands on its recent publications and studies conducted concerning the main ceramics, petroglyph and port-site datasets from India, Pakistan and Egypt primarily, which have so far yielded confirmable results and encourage ongoing study.

While taking a bottom-up approach to the archaeological data and the concrete reconstruction of trade routes, the project ultimately addresses wider questions concerning processes of connectivity and multicultural exchange in the ancient world. In general, scholarship has kept studies of ancient land and sea routes separated, along with a reliance on historical sources. This project aims to balance out the resulting lacunas in our understanding of these complex trade routes by means of a comprehensive archaeological basis of investigation, which will subsequently allow a better approach to the wider interpretative questions of ancient connectivity.

MA student Alexander Mohns examining unrecorded rock carvings at Gilgit, Pakistan.

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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