Cultural exchange between ancient Rome and China: an archaeological study of material and iconographical evidence up to 5th century CE (working title)
The proposed doctoral project will be divided into two parts: an as comprehensive as possible collection of archaeological evidence regarding the material and iconography between ancient Rome and contemporary China, as well as a discussion about the scope and depth of the cultural exchange across Eurasia based on the evidence collected. The exchange is twofold: there was far-reaching Roman, or in a sense “Hellenistic”, influence upon the other end of Eurasia, for example the centaur on a tapestry found in an arguably first century BCE tomb from Sampula, Xinjiang, and vice versa Chinese silk was found in a sarcophagus from Spitalfields, London, which dates to ca. 4th century CE under Roman control. My potential argument will be that there is a changing model in the reception of this bidirectional cultural exchange, from an “unconscious encounter” to a “conscious manipulation” of materials and iconography from the other culture.
This project fits well with the interdisciplinary nature of the Doctoral Program Classical and Ancient Studies (PAW) at the Munich Centre of Ancient Worlds (MZAW). The website of the “Distant Worlds” programme (http://www.gs-distantworlds.mzaw.lmu.de/Focus-Areas/Organisation-of-Exchange) has a succinct overview over the organisation of exchange in ancient times:
“Exchange”, i.e. a transfer of material or non-material objects between two or more partners on the basis of reciprocity, belongs to the fundamental characteristics of ancient cultures. It can take place on various levels, as an exchange i) of commodities, ii) of techniques, and iii) of ideas. These categories can overlap, and – although this may not have been the primary intention – an exchange of commodities might also include the transfer of techniques and/or ideas.
Indeed, the Silk Road is a case in point along which not only commodities but also technologies, religions, ideas, etc. are exchanged between the West and the East. Archaeological evidence of textiles, for example, can convincingly testify the multi-fold phenomenon in that the material of silk, the technology of weaving, and the cultural mark of iconography could appear on a single piece of cloth. The seemingly anachronism or misalignment of space tells exactly the story of intercultural exchange to a degree that was never so vividly told in historic records.
The approach of this project is mainly archaeological. The long established and fruitful research regarding the trading between ancient Rome and China over literary sources has been faced with the bottleneck of scarce and scattered archaeological sources. The expeditions of Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot in western China during the early 20th century brought into light some archaeological evidence, but a lack of scientific excavation and systematic documentation prevented the development of a theoretical model to interpret the scale and depth of exchange between the ancient cultures. In the second half of the 20th century, excavations conducted by the Chinese government all across the country, especially those in Xinjiang province, added to the picture a considerable amount of new evidence. However, the archaeological reports were project-based so that discussions were case-oriented and there was a lack of comprehensive view over all the evidence available. This project aims to bridge the gap with a catalogue collecting all relevant evidence, from both China and Rome, and attempts to propose a possible model of interpretation based on the collected evidence as a stimulus for future studies in this field.