- The Cultures of Ancient Xinjiang, Western China: Crossroads of the Silk Roads ed. by Alison V. G. Betts et al.
When Sven Hedin set out to explore the region at the end of the nineteenth century, Xinjiang was one of the least known areas in Asia for Westerners. Unfortunately, this is still largely the case, at least in archaeology, over 100 years later, despite a significant increase in the amount of archaeological data coming out of this region during the past several decades (see, for example, the special section on the archaeology of Xinjiang and surrounding areas edited by Annie Chan and published in Asian Perspectives vol. 59, no. 2 in 2020). One of the main reasons is that today's Western archaeologists generally lack the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in Xinjiang due to political restrictions.
An exception is the Australian team spearheaded by Alison Betts of the University of Sydney, which has managed to participate in several projects in Xinjiang and has contributed considerably to this field. The edited volume reviewed here represents this team's most recent effort to introduce the rich ancient cultures of Xinjiang to the English-speaking world. The origin of this volume dates back to a workshop entitled "East and West: past and future" held at the University of Sydney in 2012. The papers included in this volume are a selection of the lectures presented in the workshop. To enhance the representativeness of the volume, the editors enlisted researchers from three Australian institutions (the two others are Monash University and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization), a few German, French, and Uzbek researchers working in nearby central Eurasian countries, and several prominent Chinese archaeologists who have done extensive fieldwork in Xinjiang. Given the small pool of experts on the archaeology of Xinjiang, the editors' efforts to offer contributions by researchers working on a wide range of topics in a single volume deserve much of our respect.
This volume has 11 chapters. Except for Chapter 1, an overview of the book, and Chapters 7 and 8, which discuss the cultural history of the Kashgar Oasis during the historical period, the chapters are devoted to the studyof the Bronze Age to early Iron Age archaeology of Xinjiang and its neighboring regions. This includes two chapters that the [End Page 228] editors put at the end of the volume, probably to highlight their emphasis on methodology. The volume's skew toward the study of prehistory is more of a reflection of the reality of the archaeology in Xinjiang than the editors' failure to balance studies on different periods. For decades, the sites that have received the most attention in Xinjiang have been highly visible, massive prehistoric cemeteries. Their rich grave goods have long been the focus of archaeological excavations. Only recently have local archaeologists started to seriously address this problem by diverting more attention to the study of historical remains such as cities, citadels, and beacon towers.
Marika Vicziany provides an excellent overview of the volume in the opening chapter. She summarizes the main contributions of this collection as refocusing researchers' attention on the river valleys and mountain passes of western China, identifying the diverse routes and mechanisms of cultural connections, expanding understanding of the social background, and demonstrating the great potential of new technologies in the study of interregional communications in central Eurasia. She emphasizes that the volume demonstrates that the cultural links between Xinjiang and its neighboring regions existed in multiple directions on multiple levels rather than occurring only through an east-west Silk Road. This conclusion deconstructs the conventional notion of the "Silk Road" to represent a more nuanced understanding of ancient interaction networks of Eurasia.
Alison Betts presents a comprehensive narrative of the prehistory of Xinjiang in the second chapter. She summarizes the early Bronze Age cultures of Xinjiang into three traditions, Qiemu'erqike, Tianshanbeilu, and Xiaohe. Betts asserts that further development of these traditions and the...