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)
LeidenGlobal seed grant (2019-2020) LeidenGlobal seed grant (2019-2020)
Grad students Rishika Dhumal and Sam Botan documenting Indian and East African ceramics in the lab.


This research project aims to reconstruct and interpret the wider implications of ancient trade routes that connected East Africa and the Indian Subcontinent from the early 1st millennium CE. Primary sources in this project include newly discovered as well as transregionally and statistically analyzed archaeological data. The study of these data allows for verifiable reconstructions of the actual trade routes that connected people in the past. This, in turn, leads to a more comprehensive insight into the diversity of multiple important trade cities and nodal points, by both land and sea, that is not limited to the documentations of individual sites, or specific cultural contexts only. These studies, importantly, form the basis for a wider synthesis, which considers relevant questions of global interactions in the ancient past, as well as the impact of these processes on societies on a transregional scope, spanning both ends of the Indian Ocean region.

The project investigates ancient processes of connectivity in local detail and global scope, through documentation, analysis, and interpretation of large quantities of newly excavated, currently unpublished, and urgently threatened archaeological evidence of the routes that connected multiple sites and regions of the ancient Indian Subcontinent and East Africa. These data include ceramics, petroglyphs, architectural structures and other material finds from excavations, depots, and catalogues. The project so far includes statistical (database/GIS) and interpretative studies at sites in India (Gujarat, Maharashtra), Pakistan (Karakorum, Gilgit), and East Africa (Egypt, Horn of Africa).

MA student Alexander Mohns examining unrecorded rock carvings at Gilgit, Pakistan.
  1. In a majority of scholarship, the Indian Subcontinent and East African coastal regions are not comprehensively included in studies of ‘ancient empires of the Silk Roads’. This exclusion is not rooted in archaeological fact and is caused by (a.) traditional misinterpretations of Indian and Africa archaeology that favoured European influences, due to the 19th-century colonial origin of the field, and (b.) past issues with the availability of and access to data from excavations across the Indian Subcontinent and East African countries, e.g. Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. This project’s statistical and interpretative studies will help fill some of this prevailing lacuna in order to enhance our understanding of both the Indian Subcontinent and East African regions as integral parts of ancient global and local networks, from a solid archaeological basis.
  2. In order to methodologically understand processes of connectivity across the ancient Indian Subcontinent and those networks’ transregional links to East Africa, it is necessary to combine comprehensive, statistically viable datasets of multiple archaeological sites across multiple regions both in specific (local) detail and as part of (global) networks. These processes cannot be understood within the isolated cultural containers in which they have been traditionally categorised and theoretically defined, or through predominant focus on textual sources. Theoretical frameworks of global connectivity, moreover, cannot be verifiable without basis in substantial datasets. Only through comprehensive transregional archaeological analyses can we (a.) investigate and interpret how these networks flourished because of their inherent adaptability, and (b.) work towards a main synthesis on how they became the roots of widespread connectivity between the many diverse cultures, societies, political systems, and environments involved in the dynamic system of contact and exchange across these regions.

This research team actively engages in archaeological heritage protection and output. The project collaborates with Pakistani archaeologists and communities to document as yet unrecorded rock art in the Karakorum mountains, which provide crucial information about Himalayan trade routes in Antiquity. These petroglyphs are currently under threat of destruction, and the project aims to help make the rock art widely accessible in digital form. Moreover, the team have compiled an Open Access archaeological reference collection of unpublished pottery and glass sherds from Palmyra (Syria) and Petra (Jordan), two crucial trade cities of the ancient Silk Roads networks, in order to concretely contribute to the preservation of archaeological heritage under threat. Another important heritage angle is the project’s focus on the distribution and spread of Aksumite trade, by retrieving data that have been scattered all around the globe from Ethiopia and Eritrea during colonial times in the 19th and 20th centuries, and by comprehensively reconstructing and interpreting the active role of the African kingdom of Aksum as part of the Indian Ocean networks of Antiquity, based on the range of these data.


The research project's team. From left to right: Rishika Dhumal, Dr Marike van Aerde, Sam Botan, Alexander Mohns

The teaching output from this project has been diverse, at both the Faculties of Archaeology and Humanities in Leiden, as well as an Honours Academy course for students of politics and global affairs that discussed a range of current issues, such as globalization, climate issues, and religious conflict, against the scope of the ancient Silk Roads and the facts and insights we can derive from archaeological data that help us understand the workings of complex networks of the past. In addition, students have actively participated in the project’s primary research with internships on ceramic datasets, fieldwork opportunities in Gujarat and the Karakorum, as well as participation at conferences and seminars in, among others, Oxford, UK, and Alexandria, Egypt. At present, two PhD students are actively working in the project, as well as several MA students. Our team maintains its own website, where the students regularly write blogs and post videos about their work. Open Access research results are also made available via this site.

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