Wooden painted panel of a princess with a basket of silk worm cocoons.

Beyond sand and spices: introduction to 'Silk Roads'

What comes to mind when you hear the term 'Silk Road'?

Camels? Very likely. Silk? Of course. Deserts, spices and Marco Polo? Quite possibly. All are indelibly linked to this famous route, popularly perceived as a conduit of trade between Asia and Europe in past centuries. For many, the Silk Road weaves visions of far-flung commerce across cultural boundaries and of warm-hued adventures in 'exotic' lands. 

However, this is only part of the story. Read on to see what the curators of our new exhibition Silk Roads (26 September 2024 – 23 February 2025) reveal about the extent and impact of this fascinating early network.

Written by the exhibition curators:

  • Sue Brunning, Curator, European Early Medieval & Sutton Hoo Collections
  • Luk Yu-ping, Basil Gray Curator: Chinese Paintings, Prints and Central Asian Collections
  • Elisabeth R. O'Connell, Byzantine World Curator

Introduction

The term 'Silk Road' was not used by those plying its supposed path in the ancient and medieval past. In fact, it was not coined until the 19th century, and only gained wider currency in the 20th century, when the romanticised notion of the Silk Road grew popular. This vision is a modern concept – however, it bears elements of truth. Certainly, exchanges took place between Asia and Europe in the past; they did involve silk and spices; and camels were one of the 'vehicles' used. But in the century and more since the term was coined, research has revealed a richer, more intricately connected world whose horizons stretched even farther than first imagined.

Crossing continents

White-haired camel figure with patches of brown hair shown holding it's neck and head up high
Ceramic tomb figure of a camel, Luoyang, China, about AD 728.

This expanded world forms the basis of the new exhibition Silk Roads (26 September 2024 – 23 February 2025). The plural title highlights that, rather than a single route of exchange, there was a web of interlocking networks that spanned Asia, Africa and Europe, from Japan to Ireland, from the Arctic to Madagascar. Their arteries ran in multiple directions, crossed diverse terrains, and conveyed not just silk and spices, but a multitude of objects and materials, people and ideas, which were exchanged in many contexts besides trade. Such interactions helped to shape cultures and histories across continents.

A gold shoulder-clasp from the famous ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England encapsulates this richer version of the Silk Roads. Recent scientific analysis has revealed that two boars depicted on it are set with garnets sourced from India, Sri Lanka and Czechia – Asia and Europe brought together in one object.

Gold clasp with enamel and garnet decoration.
Gold shoulder-clasp with glass and garnets, England, early AD 600s.

The exhibition's timeframe of about AD 500 to 1000 may also surprise, since it ends long before Marco Polo's (1254–1324) travels in Asia – a common Silk Roads touchpoint. But the Silk Roads' history is longer as well as more expansive than is often thought to be the case – and this is a defining slice through their history. It witnessed the rise and transcontinental activities of several major powers, including the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907) in China, Islamic states beginning with the Rashidun Caliphate (AD 632–61), the Byzantine empire from emperor Justinian (d. AD 565) to Basil II (d. AD 1025), and the Carolingian empire in Francia (AD 800–87). It also saw the spread of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam; large-scale migrations of peoples; and movement of objects through trade and other methods on an unprecedented scale. 

Silk Roads further departs from convention in its experimental approach to telling big stories in a museum setting. With three curators from different specialisms it marshals, for the first time, artefacts and cross-disciplinary expertise from all British Museum collection departments, while drawing upon existing external networks and forging new ones – truly in the spirit of the Silk Roads. Objects from the Museum collection are generously supported by others borrowed from 29 international lenders, some of whom have never lent to the Museum, or the UK, before. The result is a unique chance to view objects from across Afro-Eurasia together, in one space, where they can be compared and contextualised.

Many journeys, myriad exchanges

Visitors to the show experience this connected world by making their own epic journey from East Asia to northwest Europe, winding through several large geographic zones and pausing at six intimate moments focusing on a particular people or place of notable cultural interactions in the Silk Roads' history. For within this sprawling story are opportunities for quieter, more personal connections through objects evoking individuals who lived, travelled, worked and died on the Silk Roads' networks. You'll encounter Willibald, a monk from England who smuggled balsam out of the city of Tyre (in present-day Lebanon) and the monk Xuanzang, who embarked on an intrepid 16-year-long journey from Tang China's capital of Chang'an to India. 

Diplomacy and warfare

Few may associate diplomacy and warfare with the Silk Roads, but both helped propel people, objects and ideas across cultural boundaries. A lively sketch from the 'Library Cave' in Dunhuang, a Buddhist centre in northwest China, evokes diplomatic relations between the local ruler of Dunhuang, neighbouring kingdoms in the Tarim Basin and Chinese dynasties during the AD 900s. It shows two envoys, wearing the headdress of government officials, travelling with a horse and camel that were probably intended as tribute given they're not carrying goods to trade.

People on the move

The Silk Roads' many arteries were busy with people of all kinds, from traders to missionaries and mercenaries. Some travelled by choice, while others were forced to move by factors beyond their control. The Sogdians of Central Asia were great traders who have left traces on lands from the Eurasian Steppe to India, and from China to the Mediterranean. A spectacular glimpse of the Sogdians in their homeland is offered by a mural section from the 'Hall of the Ambassadors' in Afrasiab (Samarkand), Uzbekistan, displayed for the first time in the UK. A masterpiece of Sogdian art, it shows the local ruler's entourage travelling to the shrine of his ancestors to pay their respects. The entire mural features envoys from distant lands, and scenes about India and Tang-dynasty China, conveying the Sogdians' vision of themselves as integral players along the Silk Roads.

Fragment of a wall painting showing a local ruler’s entourage paying their respects at the tomb of his ancestors.
Section of the wall painting from the south wall of the ‘Hall of the Ambassadors’, AD 660s, Afrasiab (Samarkand), Uzbekistan. © ACDF of Uzbekistan, Samarkand State Museum Reserve.

A very different story is told by a silver neck-ring found near Tallinn, Estonia. During the AD 800s and 900s, Scandinavian Vikings traded human beings, many seized from eastern Europe, into the Islamic east, in return for silver dirham coins, which were conveyed back to Scandinavia via rivers that flowed through Russia and Ukraine into the Baltic sea. The neck-ring was probably cast from melted-down coins that had been used to purchase captives caught up in this exploitation.

Thin loop of silver with a clasp.
Silver neck-ring, Estonia, late AD 900s.

Objects and raw materials

Objects of every form and function also traversed the Silk Roads, from books and cookware to weapons and jewellery, along with countless raw materials including gemstones, elephant ivory, furs and marble. Marble fragments from a church built in the AD 500s using local techniques at Adulis, a Red Sea port of the Christian kingdom of Aksum (present-day Eritrea and northeast Ethiopia), have been scientifically identified as Proconnesian marble from across the Mediterranean sea, quarried near Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire.

Adoption and adaptation

Throughout the exhibition, objects evoke the adoption and adaptation of elements from one culture by another: a process motivated by diverse factors and leading to rich, often innovative, developments. In Italy the Lombards, a Germanic-speaking people who had migrated from Pannonia (central Europe) in AD 568, assumed and modified many Byzantine aspects of life, from political infrastructure to tableware. A witness to this is a fine drinking-horn, characteristically northern European in form, but made from cobalt-blue Mediterranean glass.

Blue-glass drinking horn.
Glass drinking-horn, Italy, AD 550–600.

A fitting counterpart from the other end of the Silk Roads is an animal-headed white stoneware cup, made in Tang China but modelled after a type of vessel known as a rhyton, which originated in the Iranian world. The emergence of this and other vessel types in Tang China coincided with the popularity of grape wine, supplied by Sogdian merchants in the capital Chang'an.

Animal-headed stoneware cup.
Ceramic cup modelled after a rhyton, China, about AD 618–907.

Religious encounters

The Silk Roads' networks brought about encounters between peoples of different faiths, from small local religions to vast, universalising ones that spread across continents. In the exhibition, Buddhism's progress across central Asia is evoked by objects loaned from Tajikistan, another first for UK audiences. Here, the region of Tokharistan (formerly Bactria) experienced a revival of Buddhism when under the sway of the Türks from the Steppe and Tang China during the AD 600s and 700s. Sculptures from this time reflect connections with India and the legacy of Gandharan art based in present-day northwest Pakistan, which developed from interactions with the cultures of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. The muscular torso and draped clothing of a bodhisattva image characterise its blended visual vocabulary.

Clay torso of a bodhisattva
Clay torso of a bodhisattva, Tajikistan, AD 600–800. Photo: State Institution 'National Museum' of the Executive Office of the President of the Republic of Tajikistan.

Meanwhile, from northwest Europe, a cross-shaped brooch could relate to diplomatic exchanges between the Christian ruler Charlemagne in Francia (covering much of present-day France, Germany and the Low Countries), and the Muslim Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad, during the years around AD 800. Made in Charlemagne's realm, the brooch's centrepiece is an Islamic glass seal that may have been acquired during these exchanges.

Cross-shaped gilt brooch set with an Islamic seal.
Cross-shaped brooch with an Islamic seal, gilt copper-alloy, Republic or Ireland, late AD 700s. 

Transferring knowledge

Ideas, knowledge and technology flowed along the Silk Roads as readily as people and objects. A famous evocation of this is a painted wooden votive panel that relates how silk farming reached the Buddhist kingdom of Khotan in the Tarim Basin (in present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China). It is believed to depict a Chinese princess who smuggled silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds in her headdress as she travelled to marry the Khotanese king. Around her are a basket of what may be silkworm cocoons, a woman with a loom and a comb beater, and perhaps the patron deity of weaving. By the AD 600s, Khotan was farming silk and had a flourishing textile industry.

Wooden painted panel of a princess with a basket of silk worm cocoons.
Painting on a wooden panel of the 'silk princess', China, probably about AD 600–800. 

Conclusion

Silk Roads ends with an object from Britain, the final stop on the exhibition's journey. Made in northern England in around AD 700, it is an extraordinary whalebone casket carved with scenes that narrate Christian traditions, northern European myths, and Jewish and Roman history, captioned in Latin and runic Old English. It offers a parting image of a deeply interlinked world traversed by people, objects and ideas. It also reminds us that while modes of transport and ways of connecting change, exchanges between cultures near and far have always been a part of humanity's past and will continue to shape its future.

Whalebone casket decorated with Christian scenes, northern-European mythology and Jewish and Roman history.
'The Franks Casket': whalebone casket, probably made in northern England, found in France, early AD 700s.

Silk Roads opens 26 September. Book your ticket now to save at least 20% on the standard price with our early bird offer.

Supported by
The Huo Family Foundation

Additional supporters
James Bartos
The Ruddock Foundation for the Arts

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