Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Silk Road by Valerie Hansen

This book is a factual representation of the archeological data from eight excavated settlements along The Silk Road. It is not a romantic meditation with fanciful images of long caravans traversing windswept deserts and mountain passes. In fact, the book has much more to say about the communities on the route than it does about the caravans themselves. Those seeking a panoramic Hollywood scene will be terribly disappointed. But the evidence itself is the best of empirical research and exciting enough for those who like their information straightforward and unembellished. There are some digressions from this approach, but they will be discussed later.

Hansen shatters many myths in the course of her examination. Chief among them is the myth that The Silk Road was one long road. Instead, it was a web of local trade routes and paths. Additionally, most of the trade was local. There were no caravans that started in China and made it to Constantinople. Indeed, the goods traded mostly served the communities along the route and were not the luxury spices and silks we imagine. A large caravan would have numbered a dozen donkeys and camels, and most traders had far fewer. Even the name “Silk Road” is not a grand ancient title; it was coined by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877.

The archeological evidence in this region is abundant, especially around the oasis towns of the Taklamakan Desert, since its climate is arid and alkaline. Organic matter is well-preserved in such an environment. This is fortunate because the written records of the period were inscribed on wood, leather and paper, which disintegrate in wet climes with acidic soil. The discussion of archeological data is taken directly from the site reports. It is dry and painstaking, but this is where the true information about the past lies. Hansen’s contribution is that she unites this data to create an overview of the political, linguistic and cultural relationships, along a segment of the route between Xi’an, China and Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Her conclusion is an especially good restatement of the chapter information. In a short space, organizes the main points and provides a synopsis.

There is an unfortunate, discordant element to this book that interferes with the communication of information about the past. Hansen insists on scattering stories throughout the text which have little to do with the main thrust of her writing. These stories include legends about travelers which she admits are inaccurate, trials and hazards faced by archeologists and tourist writing about modern environs along the route. I am not certain of her intentions. Was she attempting to draw-in a popular readership? If so, they’re only going to run screaming from the book when she presents the stark archeological facts that make-up the body. But these non-sequiturs are obstacles that her information-seeking audience can easily skim to get on with the study.

Hansen concisely describes the importance of The Silk Road: While this route comprised modest paths and common, local trade, it “changed history, largely because the people who managed to traverse part or all of the Silk Road planted their cultures like seeds of exotic species carried to distant lands” (Hansen, p. 235). These travelers were at the origin of a tradition that is continued today by people like Valerie Hansen. While her modes of transport and communication may be more convenient than those of past explorers, she too conveys information about distant lands and cultures in history. We should value her contribution.


Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.