Friday, 29 March 2019

The Obsidian Polar Trade Route

Proof of a 2,000 kilometre polar trade route in volcanic glass dating back at least 8,000 years

By The Siberian Times reporter
07 March 2019
The conclusion is that ancient people used dog sleds to cover these remarkable distances 'at the ends of the earth'. Picture: Alexander Kutsky
But how? 
The discovery is breathtaking. 
As the crow flies this is a journey of some 1,500 km but as scientist Yaroslav Kuzmin told us ‘the actual distance that obsidian ‘walked’ is at least 2,000 km. 
‘This is not just long-range but ultra-long-range transport of raw materials.’
This Great Ice Road was in operation four times as long ago as the famous Silk Road in Central Asia, and it was twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids. 
The distance between the exchange points is about 700 km. Picture: Elena Pavlova
The conclusion is that ancient people used dog sleds to cover these remarkable distances 'at the ends of the earth'.
At the time Zhokhov Island - now part of the De Long Islands in the New Siberian archipelago - was connected to the Siberian mainland, and the climate was milder than today.
Yet the distance is still stunning.
Obsidian was used by ancient people at a famous site on Zhokhov for tools: the black or green volcanic glass, an extrusive igneous rock, was a material of choice. 
Obsidian implements from Zhokhov site
14 obsidian implements from the Zhokhov site were analysed to identify their provenance. Picture: Elena Pavlova
Some 79 tools have been found at the site on the island. 
A scientific article in Antiquity reveals how a random 14 of these were analysed to identify their provenance. 
They were examined using non-destructive X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to compare the obsidian with known sources in northeastern Siberia.
The geochemistry of the Zhokhov artefacts shows with 90 per cent confidence that it came from a source at Cape Medvezhiy on Lake Krasnoe in Chukotka.
‘The archaeological data from Zhokhov therefore indicate a super-long-distance Mesolithic exchange network,’ conclude the international team of researchers in the Antiquity paper.
Obsidian pebbles from Krasnoye Lake

Lake Krasnoye
Top: Obsidian pebbles found on the shored of the Lake Krasnoye. Bottom: Lake Krasnoye. Pictures: Yaroslav Kuzmin, Evgeny Basov
The scientists doubt the ancient people themselves carried the obsidian all this way. 
More likely was an ancient exchange, or trading, system.
The article states: 'In winter time, such a journey required particular skills and technology, such as skiing or the use of snow shoes, both of which were common elsewhere in the Arctic from at least the Early Holocene. 
‘While journeys on foot were costly in terms of time, labour and energy, walking allowed for the creation of an exchange network, the scale of which could be expanded significantly by the use of transportation, such as watercraft or animal-powered systems. In both the prehistoric and modern Arctic, the latter is evidenced by sledges pulled by dogs or reindeer. 
Parts of the sledge found on Zhokhov site

Model of binding
Parts of sledges found on the Zhokhov site. Pictures: Vladimir Pitulko
‘The most suitable season for the use of animals for transport during the occupation of the Zhokhov site would probably have been in early spring (March and April), when snow is still solid and the days are longer than in the winter. Indeed, today, the popular Beringia dog-sled race — a super-long-distance expedition of over 1000 km —normally takes place during this time of the year.
'The Zhokhov site has yielded the world’s oldest evidence for wooden sledge runners and other sledge component parts. 
‘Reconstructions from faunal remains of canine body weight and size show that these animals were similar to modern Siberian huskies. 
‘Sledge transport formed an important part of the subsistence technology of the Zhokhov site’s inhabitants. 
Dog's skull found on Zhokhov Island

Siberian huskies
‘Reconstructions from faunal remains of canine body weight and size show that these animals were similar to modern Siberian huskies.‘ Pictures: Vladimir Pitulko, Anikish
It also should be stressed that these people were skilled travellers, who regularly visited today’s New Siberia, Faddeyevskiy and Kotel’nyy Islands to the south and west of the site—as indicated by the presence of raw materials procured from these locations.' 
They believe that ‘dog-sled technology, the environment and phenology have remained largely the same in the East Siberian Arctic regions for millennia, regardless of developments such as the introduction of metals, pottery or other innovations. 
‘Dog-sled technology undoubtedly played an important part in raw materials exchange networks, as evidenced by the presence of Chukotka obsidian at the Zhokhov site. 
‘Although virtually no obsidian has been found in the Early Holocene archaeological record between the Zhokhov site and Chukotka, a connection between these two areas clearly existed by c. 8000 BP.’
Obsidian flakes from Kolyma river

Lower reaches of Kolyma river
Obsidian flakes found on Kolyma river. Pictures: Yaroslav Kuzmin, YSIA
They believe there were staging posts on the exchange route and note that ‘obsidian artefacts have been found in the Malyy Anyuy River basin (in western Chukotka) and in the lower course of the Kolyma River’.
They suggest that ‘it is possible that raw obsidian was transported to the Malyy Anyuy River basin in the Middle–Late Holocene (Neolithic and Bronze Age) as unmodified nodules…
‘The distance between the Lake Krasnoe source and utilisation sites is around 450–500km in a direct line. Fewer obsidian artefacts are found in and around the Kolyma River mouth, which is approximately 850km from the source.’ 
Zhokhov Island

Zhokhov Island
Excavations at Zhokhov Island. Pictures: Vladimir Pitulko, Elena Pavlova
Kuzmin said: 'It is unlikely that the ancient people made trips to such long distances; most likely there has been an exchange or a primitive trade of obsidian. Sites at the mouth of the Kolyma and, possibly, at the mouth of the Indigirka could serve as intermediate points. 
‘In this case, the distance between the exchange points is about 700 km.
’It is quite surmountable in early spring dog sledding.' 
The experts believe ‘it is possible that some types of ‘trade hub’ existed in the Siberian Arctic for the exchange of valuable resources, such as stone raw materials, furs and other items’.
Chukchi dog sledge

Dog sledge in blizzard

Chukchi dogs
It was around 7,800 years ago that the the territory of Zhokhov became detached from the mainland. 
They conclude: 'Early Holocene super-long-distance obsidian exchange in the High Arctic is now scientifically demonstrated. Such an exchange system is a remarkable example of a subsistence strategy in use in northern Siberia at that time, if not earlier. The presence of other Mesolithic sites on the north-eastern Siberian Arctic mainland testify — indirectly — to the active contact between human groups across this region.'
The international team of researchers comprised Vladimir Pitulko (St Petersburg), Yaroslav Kuzmin (Novosibirsk), Michael D. Glascock (USA), Elena Pavlova (St Petersburg) and Andrei Grebennikov (Vladivostok).

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Art & Archaeology of the Silk Road Symposium 2017

     at Portland State University October 11-13, 2017

This international conference featured keynote presentations by:
Daniel Waugh, director of the Seattle Silk Road Project and editor of the journal of the Silkroad Foundation
Annette Juliano, Professor of Asian Art at the Newark branch of Rutgers University
Matthew P. Canepa, Professor of Art History, University of Minnesota
They reappraised key questions after shifts over the last two decades within the field, with presentations from an international range of leading scholars in the field.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Origins of the Silk Roads

Origins of the Silk Roads 

Lecture by Rowan Flad, John E. Hudson Professor of Archaeology, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University
on October 24, 2018 at the Geological Lecture Hall of the Peabody museum in Cambridge
Approximately 4,000 years ago, the peoples of China and Eurasia gradually began to develop networks of interaction and exchange that radically transformed the cultures of both regions. These networks eventually gave rise to the Silk Road trade routes connecting the East and West. Rowan Flad will examine the archaeological evidence—from the Qijia Culture of Northwest China—that documents the agricultural, metallurgical, and technological innovations that resulted from the earliest trans-Eurasian exchanges, and how studies of the Silk Road origins are being reinvigorated by China’s One Belt, One Road initiative

Monday, 25 March 2019

New article about the "Shigir Idol" from the Siberian Times

The Shigir Idol, depicting the ‘ancient spirit world’, originally stood tall beside a paleo-lake

By Anna Liesowska
26 February 2019
The stunning idol is three times as old as the Egyptian pyramids. Picture: Olga Gertcyk, The Siberian Times
With its evocative main face and O-shaped mouth, its mysterious zigzag etched lines, the Shigir Idol is now accepted as one of the world’s oldest examples of monumental art. 
All the more remarkably, it is made of larch not stone yet still survives, thanks to it falling into a peat bog, once a paleo-lake, in which it was superbly preserved. 
Now experts who know it best are suggesting some intriguing new theories about this ancient relic found late in the 19th century by tsarist gold prospectors.
One is that it is believed to have stood tall over the long-gone Shigir paleo-lake.  
Another is that it held this position for a mere 20 or so years. 
While some scientists have suggested it resembles a Totem pole, experts insist the lower part of the Shigir Idol was not - as might be expected - dug into the ground to support it. 
Rather, it was propped up against a tree or perhaps more likely against a rock face on the shore of the water.
The worlds oldest wooden statue

The worlds oldest wooden statue

The worlds oldest wooden statue
The stunning idol is three times as old as the Egyptian pyramids. Drawings: Nina Belanova, Sasha Skulova. Picture: Olga Gertcyk, The Siberian Times

The idol has already shattered our understanding of early ritual art by the hunter-gatherers at the end of the Ice Age, all the more so when tests revealed last year proved it to be older - it was created some 11,500 or 11,600 years ago - than previously understood. 
It reveals a depth of artistic talent unexpected before the onset of famers. 
Now Dr Mikhail Zhilin, leading researcher of the Age Archeology Department in Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences, has told The Siberian Times: ‘Based on the the facts I can clearly say that it was not dug into the ground, like Totem poles.
’It was standing on a relatively hard, presumably stone, pedestal, because the lower part got flattened by strong pressure, and this sculpture was quite heavy. 
‘According to the dendrologist Karl-Uwe Heussner, the Shigir Idol stood like this on shore of a large Shigir paleo lake for about 20 years; then a large crack appeared in the middle, followed by a series of smaller cracks. 
‘The Idol fell into the water, floated for about a year, then sank to the lake's bottom and formation of peat around it began.' 
The worlds oldest wooden statueq

The worlds oldest wooden statue
The Idol was made from a larch tree 11,600 years ago. Picture: Olga Gertcyk, The Siberian Times. Drawing: Sasha Skullova
The idol may have been tied by strapping to harness it in place but was not held by another structure. 
‘We did not find any trace of a counterforce,’ said Dr Zhilin. ‘If supporting beams or forks were used, it would leave clear traces, but we do not see them. 
‘There was an idea previously that the idol could be put on a raft and was floating on the lake. 
‘We have no data to confirm this. 
‘It was definitely standing on some stone base  in the open air and there were no supports.’
He surmised: ‘There are two options - it could be leaned against some rock or a tree. 
‘You just need to remove several branches from, say, pine or fir tree, to get the suitable space for the idol; a leather strap might have fastened it into place or something alike to rawwhide straps that would not leave any significant traces.
'I tend to think that it was standing near the water, in quite a secluded place.' 
The worlds oldest wooden statue
The Idol is now kept at the Sverdlovsk Regional History museum in Yekateriburg. Picture: Olga Gertcyk, The Siberian Times

Dr Zhilin has also clarified claims based on earlier an scientific research publication that this Mesolithic Age idol depicts demons. 
‘I presume that some journalists caught the word 'demon' in our publications, and took it out of the context,’ he said. 'It actually has a very wide range of meanings even in English, from devil to good genius. Given the Idol was created 11,500 years ago, we can't yet, or possibly ever, say just what it depicted. We don't have enough context.'
'These could have been some kind of spirits - not deities, because we think that deities appeared later.’
'While we can't be sure on what the Idol depicted, we mustn't underestimate people who created it. 
'They had all the necessary tools and skills, plus a rather complex view of the world which to them was populated with spirits. Not only animals or trees, even stones were animated.  
given that we do not known the context 11,500 years ago, we cannot say exactly what they depicted

The worlds oldest wooden statue
The world's oldest wooden statue. Pictures: Olga Gertcyk, The Siberian Times

‘We think it was something close to animism', Dr Zhilin said. 
'I see in these images unity and diversity of the world that surrounded the creators of the Idol, which clearly wasn't divided into the kind and evil spirits.' 
'We are a long way from unravelling the ancient code left by the creators of the Shigir Idol. There is nothing in the world similar to the Idol, no written data left. 
'There are interpretations that it could be something like a Totem pole, but it is only a suggsetion. It could have also been a hidden sacred place, yet there are not enough facts to support any of these suggestions.’
The Shigir Idol is on display at the Sverdlovsk Regional History Museum in Yekaterinburg. 

The Steppe and the Sea: Pearls in the Mongol Empire

by Thomas T Allsen

  • Series: Encounters with Asia
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press (May 3, 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812251172

  • In 1221, in what we now call Turkmenistan, a captive held by Mongol soldiers confessed that she had swallowed her pearls in order to safeguard them. She was immediately executed and eviscerated. On finding several pearls, Chinggis Qan (Genghis Khan) ordered that they cut open every slain person on the battlefield. Pearls, valued for aesthetic, economic, religious, and political reasons, were the ultimate luxury good of the Middle Ages, and the Chingissid imperium, the largest contiguous land empire in history, was their unmatched collector, promoter, and conveyor. Thomas T. Allsen examines the importance of pearls, as luxury good and political investment, in the Mongolian empire—from its origin in 1206, through its unprecedented expansion, to its division and decline in 1370—in order to track the varied cultural and commercial interactions between the northern steppes and the southern seas.
    Focusing first on the acquisition, display, redistribution, and political significance of pearls, Allsen shows how the very act of forming such a vast nomadic empire required the massive accumulation, management, and movement of prestige goods, and how this process brought into being new regimes of consumption on a continental scale. He argues that overland and seaborne trade flourished simultaneously, forming a dynamic exchange system that moved commodities from east to west and north to south, including an enormous quantity of pearls. Tracking the circulation of pearls across time, he highlights the importance of different modes of exchange—booty-taking, tributary relations, market mechanisms, and reciprocal gift-giving. He also sheds light on the ways in which Mongols' marketing strategies made use of not only myth and folklore but also maritime communications networks created by Indian-Buddhist and Muslim merchants skilled in cross-cultural commerce.
    In Allsen's analysis, pearls illuminate Mongolian exceptionalism in steppe history, the interconnections between overland and seaborne trade, recurrent patterns in the employment of luxury goods in the political cultures of empires, and the consequences of such goods for local and regional economies.


Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art

Roxann Prazniak is professor of history at the Robert D. Clark Honors College, University of Oregon. 
  • Series: Perspectives on the Global Past
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: University of Hawaii Press (March 31, 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0824876571

An era rich in artistic creations and political transformations, the Mongol period across Eurasia brought forth a new historical consciousness visible in the artistic legacy of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Historicity of the present, cultivation of the secular within received cosmologies, human agency in history, and naturalism in the representation of social and organic environments all appear with consistency across diverse venues. Common themes, styles, motifs, and pigments circulated to an unprecedented extent during this era creating an equally unprecedented field of artistic exchange. Exploring art’s relationship to the unique commercial and political circumstances of Mongol Eurasia, Sudden Appearances rethinks many art historical puzzles including the mystery of the Siyah Kalem paintings, the female cup-bearer in the Royal Drinking Scene at Alchi, and the Mongol figures who appear in a Sienese mural.
Drawing on primary sources both visual and literary as well as scholarship that has only recently achieved critical mass in the areas of Mongolian studies and Eurasian histories, Roxann Prazniak orchestrates an inquiry into a critical passage in world history, a prelude to the spin-off to modernity. Sudden Appearances highlights the visual and emotional prompts that motivated innovative repurposing of existing cultural perspectives and their adjustment to expanding geographic and social worlds. While early twentieth-century scholarship searched for a catholic universalism in shared European and Chinese art motifs, this inquiry looks to the relationships among societies of central, western, and eastern Asia during the Mongol era as a core site of social and political discourse that defined a globalizing era in Eurasian artistic exchange. The materiality of artistic creativity, primarily access to pigments, techniques, and textiles, provides a path through the interconnected commercial and intellectual byways of the long thirteenth century.
Tabriz of the Ilkhanate with its proximity to the Mediterranean and al-Hind seas and relations to the Yuan imperial center establishes the geographic and organizational hub for this study of eight interconnected cities nested in their regional domains. Avoiding the use of modern geographic markers such as China, Europe, Middle East, India, Sudden Appearances shifts analysis away from the limits of nation-state claims toward a borderless world of creative commerce.