- Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road by Susan Whitfield
Susan Whitfield's new book can best be described in one word: kaleidoscopic. It is full of diverse and fascinating details of selected aspects of material culture from the "silk road," which here means Central Asia from the first century b.c.e. to today. The book is a pleasure to explore and will delight readers from a wide sphere despite occasional stylistic detours into academese. However, a coherent scientific agenda or historical narrative built from the kaleidoscope's glittering fragments proves elusive; this project is designed to inspire interest rather than push forward new explanations of the past. [End Page 232]
In structure, the book is divided into 10 substantive chapters, plus an introduction (on which more later). Most chapters are built on a foundation of a single object, each of which provides a foil for discussing wider topics related to the object or that grow out of its origins. Such topics include fluid identities and interaction between cultures, the history of manufacturing techniques and their transmission across vast distances, or processes of (re)discovery and decontextualization of historical objects in the context of the art world. The genre of expansive micro-history is increasingly popular; for example, it was put to good effect for a wide audience in Neil MacGregor's (2010) A History of the World in 100 Objects, which was made available over multiple media platforms; other examples abound (cf. publisher Thames & Hudson's more visually-oriented Pocket Museum series). Elsewhere, mainstream history is finally taking the subject of archaeology, "material culture," seriously (Hannan and Longair 2017). In many ways Silk, Slaves, and Stupas is the material culture incarnation of one of Whitfield's previous books, Life Along the Silk Road (Whitfield 2001), which was a similarly rich and inspiring show-and-tell of Central Asian history, albeit in that case based on individuals figuring in the letters and other textual sources from Dunhuang. Intentionally or not, both books are effectively constructed as rich, didactic exhibitions in book form, guiding the reader to diverse materials and fields of scholarship (including plentiful academic references) which they may not have encountered before. It is a pity that in a book on visually-arresting objects, all of the color figures illustrating the objects in question were gathered together in two plate sections, presumably for reasons of printing economy, rather than opening the chapters in which they are discussed. Maps describing places that objects come from could also have appeared in context rather than grouped together.
Whitfield applies the term "material culture" very loosely to the objects discussed in this book. Each chapter starts from an object or a category of things: "A Pair of Steppe Earrings" (chapter 1) leads to a discussion of the political relations between China and the Xiongnu; "A Hellenistic Glass Bowl" (chapter 2) found in Hengzhigang in south China allows for a discussion of the technical history of glass; "A Hoard of Kushan Coins" (chapter 3) that originally came from central Asia but somehow made their way to Axum in present-day Ethiopia open a discussion on Indian Ocean trade; "Amluk Dara Stupa" (chapter 4), a religious architectural structure, facilitates a discussion on the transmission of Buddhism between India and China; "A Bactrian Ewer" (chapter 5), made perhaps in the fifth century a.d. in Afghanistan (drawing on Hellenistic Greek motifs), then deposited in a tomb in northern China, provides a foil for discussion of metal and mining; "A Khotanese Plaque" (chapter 6), a wooden plaque from Khotan in the Tarim basin was created as a Buddhist religious object but drew on an eclectic iconography; "The Blue Qur'an" (chapter 7), an exceptional codex, allows discussion of both the medieval world of manuscripts and the modern world of their fragmentation and dispersal; "A Byzantine Hunter Silk" (chapter 8) enables a discussion...