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Beyond the Silk Road: Economic Development, Frontier Zones and Inter-Imperiality in the Afro-Eurasian World Region, 300 BCE to 300 CE

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - BaSaR (Beyond the Silk Road: Economic Development, Frontier Zones and Inter-Imperiality in the Afro-Eurasian World Region, 300 BCE to 300 CE)

Reporting period: 2022-03-01 to 2023-02-28

The Silk Road, allegedly channelling large volumes of precious commodities from East to West, is often seen as an ancient precursor of modern globalization. Yet the Silk Road paradigm comes with a heavy colonial burden as well as a number of misconceptions about past economic processes: the universality of supply-and-demand operating between ancient empires, the prevalence of profit-maximizing entrepreneurial traders, and the fossilization of trade routes across the continent. In the last ten years, researchers working from a variety of disciplinary angles have called attention to these problems, and others have begun to probe the nature of specific interactions by analysing particular types of evidence, including coins, transmitted and excavated texts, and the archaeology of maritime and terrestrial networks. Conversely, even recent synthetic Silk Road narratives ignore the very limited and regionally heterogeneous ancient evidence that requires specialized techniques of analysis. To make this evidence fruitful for studies of global exchange demands close interdisciplinary cooperation. A proper economic history of the ancient Afro-Eurasian world beyond the Silk Road paradigm has never been attempted since the Silk Road was invented in the 19th century.

In response, the project develops a new conceptual and methodological frame for understanding economic processes in the ancient Afro-Eurasian world region. It is based on an interdisciplinary research design and will lead to a three-volume handbook that will serve as a foundation for future research. In daily cooperation, the interdisciplinary research team seeks to understand local and regional borderland markets and exchange strategies in order to comprehend inter-imperial exchanges at a Eurasian scale. All ancient trade and exchange took place in either social, religious, or ethnic networks or in economic dependency structures, which operated both within and between ancient empires. In order to understand these networks and structures on the one hand and their inter-imperial communication on the other, both the economic structures of empires and the institutional, political, and infrastructural changes in borderlands that stimulated inter-imperial exchange need to be understood. This multi-scalar model of Afro-Eurasian connectivity will abandon the one-dimensional assumptions of Silk Road trade, while maintaining the Afro-Eurasian world region as a meaningful unit for economic analysis.

The results of the project challenges the dominant Silk Road narrative of global exchange and trade. They challenge the status of market models of trade as universally valid tools for understanding economic processes in the past and as justifications of global inequalities in the present. They also question the utility of these models for analysing economic processes beyond national economies. Three aspects, in particular, come into focus: multipurpose and multidirectional network building within and across empires; imperial systems that take into consideration frontier zone processes as incubators of institutional innovation and economic initiative; and the importance of political and institutional development in regions of limited statehood.
The first volume of the Handbook has been published in December 2019. The volume focusses on the contexts of economic research in the Afro-Eurasian world zone, including: historical analyses of the rise and transformation of empires and imperial economic structures in their particular environmental contexts; regional surveys of source material that can be used for economic analysis; and disciplinary discussions of the historiographical traditions in which scholars have approached the economies and inter-imperial (“Silk Road”) trade in China, India, Central Asia, Russia, and Europe/USA. The second volume (Afro-Eurasian imperial economies), focussing on the main actors, tools, and outcomes of the imperial economies under consideration, is currently being drafted and is scheduled to be ready for final revision in the autumn of 2020.

A major international conference, “Economies of the Edge: Frontier Zone Processes at Regional, Imperial, and Global Scales (300 BCE – 300 CE),” took place in Freiburg from 19th – 21st September, 2019. The conference integrated a large number of local research perspectives into a global whole. The proceedings have been initially accepted by Heidelberg University Press for open access publication. The volume will be finally accepted after the peer-review process, which is scheduled for the Autumn of 2020, after the submission of revised papers in September.

The project has built the foundation for further global historical research by a.) establishing the Afro-Eurasian zone as a cohesive imperial world zone in the centuries of major imperial transformations between the third century BCE and third century CE; b) identifying key frontier zones and borderlands that need to be considered when discussing inter-imperial exchange networks in the Afro-Eurasian region; c) composing historical accounts of the political and social developments underlying economic processes in all major regions involved, and compiling these into a single, freely accessible publication; d) surveying the most important evidence and methods for economic analysis currently available; e) identifying different traditions of scholarship as major research contexts to be considered when analysing Afro-Eurasian economic history; and f) making available a set of regional maps of the entire Afro-Eurasian world, and an online bibliography (though the publication was held up the University shut-down in March 2020 due to the coronavirus crisis).
The project has delivered the first volume of the three-volume work providing the first economic history of the Afro-Eurasian world region, grounded in empirical research from the Mediterranean all the way to China between 300 BCE – 300 CE. The project has crafted not only coherent, cross-disciplinary scholarship, but the researchers have also identified a common set of questions, inspired in part by economic-historical and anthropological theory, and sought to answer them from their own regional and disciplinary contexts. While the evidence does not permit complete answers to all questions for all areas, the identification of these lacunae is also considered a significant contribution to interdisciplinary scholarship.

By the end of the action the project will have completed two more volumes of the Handbook and thus delivered, as planned, the first cohesive economic history of the Afro-Eurasian region with a particular focus on frontier zone development and their inter-imperial interaction.
Flyer of the interdisciplinary conference of the action September 2019