Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History is much more directly about the Silk Road than is Peter Frankopan’s similarly named book. Specifically, it’s looking at a half dozen sites on the route between China and the West, and examining the archaeological evidence to try to adduce a history of those locations, and particularly of trade and cultural exchange there.

The spoilery version is that there’s not really any particular evidence of large-scale, long-distance trade in any consistent way; there’s mostly small local trade, and cultural and technological exchange that happens through population movements, with people immigrating to a new city for whatever reason. But of course, the book isn’t just outlining that bare thesis, it’s also going into detail about each location, the significance of what was found there, the history of its archeology, and its relation to other nearby cities.

It’s a bit on the potsherds side of history—many of the records that historical surmise is built on come to us not as whole documents, but as paper fragments repurposed for funerary goods—but it’s lively and interesting, and a relatively quick read. Lightly recommended.


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