Isotopic Silk Road

A Conversation about the Science, Archaeology, and History of Silk, The First Global Commodity

Science of the Human Past, Harvard University-Medieval History Workshop
Robinson Hall, Lower Library, April 3, 2012 


  • Michael McCormick, A few questions
  • Berit Hildebrandt, Silk between China and Rome in Classical Antiquity
  • Ece Turnator, Silk Textile Production in the later Byzantine Empire
  • Noreen Tuross, Isotopic approaches

The SHP’s first mini-symposium was devoted to the SoHP research project: Isotopic Silk Road. It is investigating the science, economics, and archaeology of ancient silk, in the Roman and post-Roman world.

Silk was the first global commodity, traded in from China and elsewhere in Asia to the Mediterranean and well documented by hundreds of preserved textiles. Roman industrial espionage is supposed to have stolen the secret of silk from the Chinese and begun local production.  Historians reckon the industry’s spread across western Eurasia a leading edge of pre-capitalist economic development. The origins of surviving textiles have until now been hotly debated on the basis of artistic design and weaving technique.  A new scientific method uses stable isotopes to identify the natal origins of surviving silks. SHP is fostering a research program to create a global chart and isotope database that aims to allow researchers world-wide to determine the natal origins of silk textiles.

Leading the conversation were Berit Hildebrandt (Mahindra Center, Harvard and Leibniz Universität, Hanover), Ece Turnator (Ph.D. candidate, History, Harvard), Noreen Tuross (Landon T. Clay Professor of Scientific Archaeology, Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard) and McCormick.  Discussion of the 26 participants was wide-ranging, lively and productive.