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Ancient China: The Silk Road

Learn all about China's ancient civilisation

China - Silk Road Map | Map of the Route of the Silk Road | Flickr

Source: Flickr

The Silk Road was a series of trade routes that linked Ancient China with the Western world. The Silk Road was used to transport goods back and forth between the East and West, but it also allowed for the sharing of ideas. Read through the resources below to learn more about this ancient trade route.

Panel with the god Zeus/Serapis/Ohrmazd and worshiper

This rare Central Asian votive panel depicts a deity (with nimbus) being approached by a male worshiper, probably nonroyal but portrayed as of equal stature to the god. Compositionally, they follow scenes of homage and investiture from the post-Hellenistic West and from Iran in which a king and a god appear side by side. A majestic figure with a full beard and long wavy hair, who has been identified as the supreme deity Zeus/Serapis/Ohrmazd, receives a suppliant in the characteristic Iranian short tunic and leggings, hands clasped in adoration.


Here, the rich intercultural style that developed in the Kushan realm because of trade along the Silk Road is clearly displayed: Indian divine iconography; the Iranian type of two-figured composition; and Greco-Roman naturalism in the drapery and pose, as well as in the use of light and shadow to suggest modeling. The panel has holes at the corners and was probably set up, together with three others acquired by the Museum (MMA 2000.42.1, .3, .4), on the interior walls of a sanctuary, perhaps a family shrine.

Bowl with wheel-cut facets

This hemispherical bowl may have been made by blowing molten glass into an open mold (though possibly it was free-blown); subsequently, four rows of oblong-to-round facets were wheel-cut and polished. The thick glass, originally pale green, has lost much of its surface color and gained extensive iridescence through weathering.

Faceted bowls such as this one are characterized by uniformity of shape, size, and arrangement of the facets in four or five rows. They represent the most widespread type of late Sasanian glass vessel, found in excavations of Mesopotamian and Iranian sites dating from the fifth to seventh century A.D. Some examples—probably carried along the Silk Road to the Far East by Persian merchants and traveling embassies—have been found in Japanese contexts, namely in the sixth-century tomb of the emperor Ankan and in the Shoso-in Treasure at Nara, which was assembled by the emperor Shomu in the eighth century.


Brilliantly colored lead glazes in shades of green, amber, and white, which are known as three-color, or sancai, glazes, were widely used in funerary goods in the late seventh and the first half of the eighth century. The shape of this ewer derives from the metalwork of the ancient Iranian world and illustrates the impact of trade along the famed Silk Road.

Pilgrim’s flask with Central Asian dancers

Both the shape and decoration show foreign influence: the shape is based on a West Asian pilgrim’s flask, while the whirling dancer is performing a dance derived from the culture of Sogdia. Centered in present-day Uzbekistan, merchants from this polity, some of whom lived in China, dominated the Silk Road trade from the fourth to the seventh century.

Stem Cup

The intertwined vine with its curled leaves is reminiscent of Sogdian imagery and motifs found in Gandharan Dionysian reliefs. The twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac are placed in rectangular frames beneath the cup rim. The mix of cultures that influenced the design of this cup (Greek and Indian influences with Chinese gold and zodiac creatures) demonstrate how the Silk Road brought multiple cultures together and how those cultures influenced each other.

Large Jar

Alighting birds and leaping quadrupeds in leafy foliage decorate the upper portion of this large, deep‑blue glazed jar. Scholars have likened these motifs to similar designs on Chinese silk tapestries, which were widely traded along the Silk Road between China and Iran at the time that this jar was made. The verses on this dated vessel suggest that it may have held wine or another type of beverage. They read: "Tumultuous air and boiling earth; Joyous is he whose heart is happy. Drink!"

Box Lid with a Bull

Box lids are a rare Gandharan example of non-religious art. The animal surrounded by swirling foliage is a motif originally found in north India. Such luxury objects moved readily along the trade routes to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Mirror Handle with a Woman Playing the Lute

This figurine belongs to a group of objects depicting ladies at leisure; here, the woman plays a stringed instrument. They likely served as mirror handles: each has a hole drilled from the top to receive the mirror fixture. Similar objects have been recorded at Khotan, in Central Asia, and are presumably the legacy of a luxury trade in such goods.

Standing Female Attendant

This rare surviving example of a tomb figurine carved from wood must have come from the dry regions of the Silk Road, but displays the fashionable high-waisted dress and short jacket of the Tang court style.

Rhyton terminating in the forepart of a wild cat

Elaborate bowls, animal-headed drinking vessels, and rhytons—vessels which have a hole at the front from which liquid flows—were highly valued in ancient Near Eastern society. During the pre-Achaemenid, Achaemenid, and Parthian periods, examples made of silver, gold, and clay were used throughout a vast area extending both to the east and west of Iran. The animals on these vessels included the ram, horse, bull, ibex, supernatural creatures, and female divinities; some were engraved with royal inscriptions. Rhytons made of precious materials were probably luxury wares used at royal courts. Both the rhyton and the animal-headed vessel were adopted by the Greek world as exotic and prestigious Oriental products.

Dating from the Parthian period, this silver rhyton is a fine example of the enduring influence of Hellenistic culture, which owes much to the artistic traditions of Achaemenid Iran. The horn-shaped vessel ends in the forepart of a panther; a spout for pouring is in the middle of the chest. A gilded fruit-laden grapevine winds around the panther's chest; at the other end of the rhyton, an ivy wreath encircles the rim. These are the symbols of the Greek wine god Dionysus, whose cult spread eastward with the invasion of Alexander. Dionysiac images—panthers, grapevines, and dancing females—were absorbed by the Parthians and continued to appear in the art of Near Eastern cultures in the Sasanian period (A.D. 224–651).

Textile with Processions of Rams

This remarkably well-preserved textile showing rams could have been produced in a Sasanian center in Iran or even Iraq. Sasanian imperial works of this quality were valued along the Silk Road and made their way as far as eastern Central Asia and China. Like the gold objects in this exhibition, such textiles were luxury goods that denoted status in the nomadic cultures of Central Asia.