These ancient traces are taken from artifacts that remain and various documented accounts. The enthusiasm for the project sprang from a book and some undelivered letters. The book, “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road” by Peter Hopkirk gives a racy account of the late 19th and early 20th century rush for archaeological finds in Central Asia. The “Sogdian Ancient letters” give a 4th century perspective on the prevailing conditions, telling of the concerns of real people. These letters were a chance find by Sir Aurel Stein, left near the western end of the Great Wall.
The exhibition focused on the ancient traces of trade routes found around the Taklamakan desert between Samarkand and China. These were paths of migration, cultural exchange, the spread of religions and technology, as well as trade. The notion of a silk road has become somewhat romanticised. There was never a single road, rather tracks marked by skeletons and accompanied by robbers. The nature of the trade, according to the documents of the time, tended to be local, run by Sogdians in whose language most of the trade was enacted. It consisted of small caravans of cattle, donkeys and camels, carrying monks, merchants and goods (Hansen, Valerie, see Acknowledgements below). The Sogdians, originally from the Samarkand/Bukhara area, established towns around the fringes of the Taklamakan desert roughly a day’s journey apart. These almost autonomous city states have yielded a great deal of archaeological material.
The period chosen, roughly 4th to 9th centuries CE, was largely one of uncertainty and warfare. Peoples fled to more settled areas taking their languages, religions and expertise with them.
I owe a great debt of thanks to The International Dunhuang Project, an online resource, under the direction of the British Library in collaboration with the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and many international institutions. Artefacts and documents were available digitally, together with reference material. Additional references were gleaned from bibliographies and online journals. A modern readable account of the Silk Road in the first millennium CE is “The Silk Road – a new history”, Valerie Hansen (OUP 2012) ISBN 978-0-19-515931-8.