The conference will explore economic processes in frontier zones of ancient empires and their wider impact on inter-imperial exchanges in the Afro-Eurasian World region. It is part of the broader project of re-thinking “Silk-Road” exchange, which so far has been looked at mostly from the perspective of imperial centers and final destinations rather than regions that—for various reasons and in different ways—were involved in inter-imperial contacts and exchange.
Global exchange in the ancient world has been a vibrant field of study over the past 10 years, leading to different research directions and interests. Many scholars working from different disciplinary angles have brought our attention to the ideological underpinnings of the concept of the Silk Road, or Silk Routes. Others have looked at specific aspects of interaction through particular types of evidence—coins, transmitted and excavated texts, and the archaeology of maritime and terrestrial networks—in order to understand better the nature of the connections that stimulated exchange and interaction in the Afro-Eurasian world region. This research has brought to the fore the necessity of finding different and novel ways of thinking about Afro-Eurasia as a connected world region.
While questions of production, consumption, and distribution remain important foci of economic history in the narrower sense, we hope to integrate broader processes into the discussion. The spread of urbanism, for example, has been examined both from economic and from political and ideological perspectives, but can these approaches be integrated? Similarly, the construction and use of physical infrastructure has complex causes, processes and consequences. How might this complexity be incorporated into our understanding of the economy?
The emergence and spread of local currencies present similar opportunities for scholars combining traditional economic questions of exchange with questions of political development and identity formation. In addition, the project of identifying the emergence and spread of market-based, commercial exchange has historically dominated the study of ancient economic networks. What other institutions facilitated exchange and what forms did these exchange-relationships take? Is the Polanyian tripartite division of reciprocity, redistribution, and market exchange still helpful?
These examples illustrate some possibilities for broadening the scope of economic history to include other realms of human activity, but we would also like to explore the possibility of incorporating ecological and environmental perspectives. How does the interdependence of mountain and valley ecologies affect economic processes at different scales? Can similar interdependencies between maritime, coastal, and inland ecologies be identified? Finally, what types of proxies can we use as evidence to study these different processes? By taking an expansive view of economic activity, we hope to better understand how the development of frontier zones allowed for the articulation of global-scale networks and how those networks, in turn, impacted the development of inter-imperial regions.
A high degree of multidisciplinary communication is necessary to move from granular datasets rooted in specific disciplinary and methodological approaches, to research on large-scale processes. The central challenge, however, remains in finding appropriate parameters for integrating data from the various scales, regions, and scholarly approaches outlined above. By bringing together focused case studies from very different micro regions, we hope to foster discussion about how to link this data to broader questions about global exchange and its political and social consequences.
This conference will focus on the last three centuries BCE and the first three centuries CE, which we identify as a time of heightened empire building alongside a marked intensification of inter-imperial exchanges across the Afro-Eurasian region. The geographical focus of the conference is more selective and follows the particular areas of attention of the BaSaR research team: South Asia and the Indian Ocean maritime region, the Central Asian borderlands, the Chinese-steppe region, as well as Southwest Asia from the Black Sea to Egypt and the Red Sea. In addition, some contributions will adopt a distinctly global perspective on the Afro-Eurasian macro-zone.
The image above, Nicholas Roerich, “Study for a Painting” ca. 1922, is used with permission of the Roerich Museum, New York.
(Attendance is open to the public and free of charge.)