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Reconnections along the Silk Roads: restoring and reconstructing textiles from afar

The International Association for the Study of Silk Road Textiles: Norwich, 15-19 October 2023

Attendees of the IASSRT conference gathered outside Norwich Cathedral.

Norwich was one of the great silk cities, and worsted and silk shawls produced here were an important component of the trade that underpinned the city’s wealth. It was therefore both apposite and an honour for us to host the International Association for the Study of Silk Road Textiles (IASSRT) for their first in-person post-pandemic conference. Some 40 specialists from Japan, China, Korea, the UK and many other countries gathered for two stimulating days of presentations at the Norwich Castle Museum and Norwich Cathedral, followed by study trips. The conference was preceded by an open discussion about the plans for our Nara to Norwich-related events in the city in May 2024 (about which more to come), and a wonderful public keynote lecture by Professor Zhao Feng, Honorary Director of the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, Dean of the School of Art and Archaeology at Zhejiang University and President of IASSRT.

Professor Zhao took us through the various types of silk, and how it was only the Chinese mulberry silkworms that were domesticated. Starting with the life cycle of the humble silkworm and legends about Leizu, the Mother of the Silk Worms, the Empress of the Yellow Emperor, via early archaeological discoveries (including silk protein found in the soil of a grave from 8500 years ago suggesting the interred was wrapped in silk textiles), and the metaphorical significance of the transformation of the silk worm into a moth as an allegory for the release of the soul after death, Professor Zhao provided a comprehensive overview of the early development of silk. He then turned to discoveries of early silk along the so-called Silk Roads, including some of the first known silk from outside China, from Pazyryk in Siberia and Palmyra in modern-day Syria. Through a series of case studies from various places along the Silk Roads (including Loulan in the infamously hostile environment of the Taklamakan Desert, Astana, Dunhuang and Xian, and ending up in Nara at the collections of the great imperial treasury of the Shôsôin and the Hôryûji Temple), the talk set out recent discoveries (including 200 tombs excavated at Niya in Xinjiang province, western China, in the 1990s which produced silks with Hellenistic-inspired patterns, the ‘God of the Sun’ combining Persian and Buddhist motifs from Dulan, and an exceptional silk bathrobe from the Famen Temple in Xian) in the history of Silk Road studies (including Aurel Stein and other European and Japanese expeditions in the early 20th century) and the resulting diaspora of treasures to the world’s museums.

The conference presentations were divided into six main themes: networks and discoveries, English and Norwich textiles, South and Southeast Asia, reconstructing medieval dress and textiles, Japanese textiles (a session supported by the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Decorative Art and Design, ICDAD, part of ICOM, the International Committee on Museums and Collections), and textile designs. You can read more about IASSRT and view the symposium brochure in this piece by Susan Whitfield, Professor in Silk Road studies and co-organiser of the symposium, on our Nara to Norwich project page where abstracts of several of the talks will be published over the coming months. Highlights for me included: independent scholar Nadeem Ahmad on ‘Reconstructing the costume of early medieval Sogdiana from artistic and archaeological sources’, delivered while sporting one of a number of stunning recreated Sogdian outfits; a challenge to our conceit that Norwich be regarded as the western terminus of the Silk Road from Frances Pritchard of the University of Manchester, who spoke about ‘a probable silk heirloom from Central Asia from a late Tenth-century house in Dublin’; ‘Viking Warriors dressed in silk’ by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Uppsala University and the Swedish History Museum; and an intriguing typological analysis of ancient Buddhist art from the Tarim Basin and Nara, by another independent researcher, Goto Kosuke.

Attendees of the symposium viewed a selection of reconstructed textiles produced by Humphries Weaving, one of the stops on the post-symposium tour. 

The conference was also an opportunity to showcase the silk connections to Norwich and our wider region. Ruth Battersby and colleagues from Norwich Museums showed off the textile and pattern books in the collections of the Norwich Castle Museum over lunchtime on the first day. That evening we were warmly welcomed by Jeannie and Philip Milward and their curator Mansi Rao to the South Asia Collection of the South Asia Decorative Arts and Crafts Trust. At the end of the second day Gudrun Warren of the Norwich Cathedral Library offered a viewing of the textiles in the Norwich Cathedral collection. Three days of post-conference tours began with a visit to Humphries Weaving in Sudbury in neighbouring Suffolk (Alex Daniels had already wowed us with a selection of sumptuous silks produced there during her talk on ‘the complex process of restoring historic textiles’), where we were also able to fully enjoy the exquisite green silk wallpaper that graces the galleries at the renowned 18th century painter Thomas Gainsborough’s house in the same town. The next day took us to the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio at Blickling Hall and, also in north Norfolk, to Holkham Hall to view their collection of reconstructed textiles. The final day was taken up with a visit to the scientific laboratories at the British Museum led by Diego Tamburini who, during the conference, gave a fascinating talk on the science behind reconstructing the Dunhuang textiles.

The conference was a resounding success. There was a tangible sense of reconnections made, relationships renewed, pandemic-battered networks restored, and new friendships woven. Colleagues departed in an optimistic mood looking forward to future encounters. Heartfelt thanks to all the speakers and visit hosts, our co-organisers and funders, in particular Susan Whitfield and Olivia Butler at the Sainsbury Institute, Helen Persson of the University of Glasgow, and Professor Zhao Feng and his colleagues in China, and the Pasold Research Fund.

Professor Simon Kaner
Executive Director
Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures