For the most part, the study of large-scale trade and exchange in the ancient world remains distanced from the physical hardships of real human travel. Ancient trade or, more neutrally, ancient ‘interaction’ is often discussed as if it took place between actors who inhabited a flat and unchanging spatial surface. In fact, topography, climate and seasonality are essential to understanding the changing forms and intensity of human travel that enabled ‘interdependence’ between communities of the Near East. This paper demonstrates some of the steps needed to reintegrate seasonality with the study of ancient trade.
Little was known of the remarkable heritage of the Silk Road until explorers and archaeologists of the early twentieth century uncovered the ruins of ancient cities in the desert sands, revealing astonishing sculptures, murals and manuscripts. One of the most notable discoveries was the Buddhist cave library near the oasis town of Dunhuang on the edge of the Gobi desert in western China. The cave had been sealed and hidden at the end of the first millennium AD and only re-discovered in 1900. Forty thousand manuscripts, paintings and printed documents on paper and silk were found in the cave itself. Tens of thousands more items were excavated from other Silk Road archaeological sites. These unique items have fascinating stories to tell of life on this great trade route from 100 BC to AD 1400. Yet most were dispersed to institutions worldwide in the early 1900s, making access difficult. The size and scope of the collections, as well as their fragility and limited access, has meant that, while they constitute a primary research resource for the history and literature of the region, many of the manuscripts in particular have yet to be studied in detail. The International Dunhuang Project aims to reunite this material by making it freely available online. One part of this project includes the mapping of archaeological sites, and the digitisation of data from archaeological data collected by Aurel Stein and other researchers, using tools such as Google Earth to help users to better understand the history of the Tarim Basin and its cultures.
Research carried out in Turkey over the last few decades seems to indicate that the Early Bronze Age in west and central Anatolia was a period in which new socio-political structures emerged whose mature development is reflected in the territorial entities of the Old Assyrian period. From the second half of the third millennium, we have evidence of social stratification both at the intra-site and inter-site level, accompanied by a wealth of prestige goods and public structures displayed in settlement and funerary contexts. This phenomenon is also paralleled by the rapid growth of long-distance relations both within Anatolia and with surrounding regions, at least partially triggered by the rise in metal demand of local and foreign elites.
In our imagination of the 'Silk Routes', we envisage travellers, traders and intellectuals traversing vast continents for the purpose of exchanging rare and precious items. The archaeological study of these routes has usually focused on transmitted artefacts and ideas, as opposed to the means and methods by which they were carried. The resultant void of knowledge concerning the infrastructure of the Silk Roads, and the nature of the settlements that shaped and were shaped by them, presents a challenge to archaeologists from both a methodological and theoretical perspective.
Trading connections and routes play a very important part in the development (or re-development) of urban centres in the Middle Bronze Age Levant. This is particularly clear in the regions of Cilicia and the Amuq Plain in the Hatay, in the north-east corner of the East Mediterranean, where at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age we have evidence of large-scale public buildings and fortification systems which represent the revival of complex political and economic structures, following a collapse at the end of the Early Bronze Age. A key role in this is played by harbour towns on the Cilician and Levantine coasts, which have an important part in the articulation and exploitation of maritime and inland routes connecting different zones and their resources. This in turn leads, by the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, to the formation of a symbiotic network of semi-dependent kingdoms which link these different inland and coastal zones in a single interactive socio-economic system.
New research is currently being carried out in order to collect supplementary data, both historical and archaeological, on the road networks of Medieval Bilād al-Šām and their related facilities. Supported by the material evidence of caravanserais, the aim of the research is to propose a reconstruction and a preliminary analysis of the region's communication axis from the beginning of the Ayyubid period till the end of the Mamluk. The preliminary character of the reflections offered in this article will hopefully be pursued more thoroughly in the completion of a larger project now in its final phase.
This visual essay explores the possibility of delineating two different types of routes, 'pathways' and 'highways', and the extent to which archaeology can help to analyse them. The technologies of cost-raster GIS analysis are introduced and applied to two case studies in Eastern Anatolia and Western Central Asia, c. 3000-1000 BC. It is to be hoped that the highlighted patterns, combined with a knowledge of contemporary material transformations, will provide insights into the processes of socio-economic change across these reconstructed networks of interaction.
A particularly common trace of ancient route systems on the ground is the 'hollow way'. In the Middle East hollow ways, like their counterparts in the UK and Europe, appear as long, usually straight valleys. This paper examines the traces of these ancient route systems in the Ancient Near East according to their pattern, processes of formation, parallels elsewhere, and their function.
The Near East presents particular challenges to the study of past landscapes. Remote sensing has been a part of archaeology for a century, and aerial photographic coverage is now the ideal and standard for field survey basemaps. Such coverge, however, is not globally available. In the modern Middle East, for example, easy access to aerial photography is often impossible to obtain. As a result, archaeologists have turned to satellite imagery. Unfortunately, the resolution of space-based imaging systems such as Landsat and SPOT is often too coarse for archaeological features. To some extent, this issue has been solved by the availability of commercial high-resolution imagery. However, such imagery is expensive and documents the modern developed landscape. Over the last decade, Near Eastern archaeologists employed a new satellite resource that resolves many of these issues: the declassified CORONA intelligence program.
The current political situation in many areas of Western and Central Asia makes effective ground based archaeological research virtually impossible. Whilst people are generally cognisant of the situation in Iraq, this is also true for Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Furthermore, since the mid-19th century, the mountainous regions that comprise the eastern borderlands of modern Afghanistan, along with the western parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Tribal Areas of modern Pakistan have been difficult to access for extended periods. However, with the widespread availability of free or inexpensive satellite imagery, it is now possible to 'visit' these regions by looking at them from space. The use of satellite imagery in this way has a number of specific archaeological applications, including the reconstruction of ancient routes, the remote detection of archaeological sites and the assessment of site destruction and looting.
Obsidian, a black volcanic glass, was first recognized by Colin Renfrew and his colleagues J.E. Dixon and J.R. Cann in the 1960s as a uniquely sensitive indicator of prehistoric trade, both because of the great desirability of this material before the use of metals, and also because the trace-elements it contains are usually diagnostic of individual sources. Based on data extracted from M.-C. Cauvin et al., L'obsidienne au Proche et Moyen Orient: du volcan à l'outil (Oxford: BAR Int. Ser. 738), maps indicate the flows of material from two major source-areas.
Satellite imaging has given a new dimension to fieldwork in the varied terrain of Southwestern Iran, where the Zagros mountains separate the Mesopotamian lowlands from highland Iran, and whose successive ridges enclose fertile intermontane valleys. These fertile enclaves were often settled as early as the Neolithic, and have a continuous history of occupation down to the present day. They gained a historical importance as stepping stones on routes through the mountains (both for transhumance and trade), and as nodal points in the formation of political units.
Early trading networks carried relatively small quantities of valuable goods, often over considerable distances, both by land and water. The relationship between overland transport and carriage by river or sea helps to explain why trading centres rose to prominence at certain key positions on these routes. With very small quantities of goods, light vessels might be carried over short distances between rivers; and even when the bulk of traded goods increased, it might still be advantageous to carry the goods for short distances overland from one port to another. Sites at such break-of-bulk points became major nodes in the transport network. This presentation explores the changing geometry of early trade-routes, and especially the interface between land and sea.
Archaeologists have long recognised (though in practice tend to forget) the degree to which developments in one part of the world were affected by things happening elsewhere. These animated maps of the spread of farming and of urbanism are intended to show a fundamental aspect of long-term human history: the underlying patterns of concentric expansion which have characterised cultural change in the Holocene.
Satellite images provide a convenient means of understanding why early sites were chosen for settlement, and of visualising the routes that linked them. These two factors (location amongst critical resources, and position in wider networks) interacted with each other: oases were occupied both because of their local advantages, and also because they acted as stepping-stones on routes carrying desirable materials over long distances. This presentation applies these arguments to a critical problem in prehistoric archaeology: where precisely did farming first emerge in western Asia?
Connections between the eastern and western ends of Eurasia began in the Bronze Age: China and the West co-evolved. A global viewpoint shows how this happened, first across the forests of Siberia, then by the steppes and oases of the Silk Road, then increasingly by sea, via the Indian Ocean. This is a human story of cultural encounter, exchange and creativity and, ultimately, geo-economics.