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Research projects

Nara to Norwich: Art and belief at the extremities of the Silk Roads, 500-1100

Female Shinto Deity, Japan, Kamakura period, AD 1185-1332.
Sainsbury Centre, object number 1146
Photo: Sainsbury Centre

Visit Nara to Norwich Online Exhibition.

How do religions change and adapt – and in turn effect change and adaptation – in the context of encounters with different traditions of the sacred, belief, cult, and ritual practice?

Nara to Norwich: Art and belief at the extremities of the Silk Roads AD 500–1100 is exploring the influence of the Silk Roads, a network of trade routes connecting Afro-Eurasia, on the extremities of east Asia (Korea and Japan) and northwest Europe (Scandinavia and Britain), focusing on the arrival of new religions, and the mutual interactions between incoming ideas and indigenous beliefs. It is examining how two world religions, Buddhism and Christianity, changed and effected change as they moved into new areas, pen/insular east Asia and northwest Europe respectively, coming into contact with, adapting to, and assimilating indigenous religious beliefs and practices, shamanism and Shinto in East Asia, and ancient ritual and religious practices in Europe.

The aim is to broaden the concept of the Silk Roads geographically to encompass places often thought to be peripheral. Through a programme of research and an associated series of mini-exhibition digital interventions focused on the UK, Scandinavia, Korea and Japan from 2021 to 2024, it is examining the expression through material culture of the interaction of new and old beliefs and rituals. The project, recognising the renewed attention being given to the concept of the ‘Silk Roads’, a term first coined in 19th-century German literature, is exploring the contention that the Silk Roads should include networks extending to Japan and the British Isles. Central themes include understanding the changes in material culture resulting from and embodying religious encounters, and how these encounters are materialised through ‘landscapes of conversion’. The project is especially timely as it focuses attention on the importance of transcontinental contacts at a time of major cultural change, with strong resonances in the Covid-19 adapted world. It will also contribute to what the environmental historian of religion Johan Elverskog calls for as the ‘reconceptualization of the role of religion in history’, building on Max Weber’s insight in The Protestant Ethic that religious ideas drive human action.

Working with colleagues at the British Museum, Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, University of Seoul, University of Uppsala, UCL, and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Culture our project will address these overarching questions through an interdisciplinary approach to several interrelated research themes including Silk Road studies, history and in particular the comparative history of religion, archaeology, architectural and art history, landscape studies, literature and digital humanities.

New forms of religious space and the adaptation of transmitted cultural forms will be examined, such as the construction of monasteries, temples, churches, stupas and the role of relics. Ideological change as reflected in the treatment of the body in burial and the abandonment of some landscape forms, such as groves, will be explored. How older places of worship and vernation are appropriated or transformed. The use of new forms of writing and iconography, along with the promulgation of new political institutions through affiliation with new forms of belief will be analysed through theory. Accommodation and repression of older forms of belief will be compared, as they differ within the two extremities of Eurasia.

Core Project Team:

Professor Simon Kaner PI

Professor Susan Whitfield Co-I

Dr Andrew Hutcheson Co-I

Themes and topics

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Archaeology of religion, Bede, Boats, Early Buddhism, Early Christianity, Encounters, Gold Glass Silk and Writing Materials, Horses, Journeys, Kojiki, Landscapes of Conversion, Monasticism, Nihon shoki, Relics, Representation of the Sacred, Shinto, Sensory religion


Asuka-Fujiwara, Bulguska, Burgh Castle, Buyeo, Gamla Uppsala, Gongju, Jelling, Kitora Tumulus, Iksan, Ishibutai Kofun, Nara, Rendlesham, Sutton Hoo, Takamatsizuka Tumulus,