Gold and silver treasures along the Steppe Silk Road

By ZHANG JINGMING / 03-01-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A gold buyao hat ornament from the Northern Dynasties, unearthed at Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Photo: Ren Guanhong/CSST

The Steppe Silk Road was one of the key conduits for trade and cultural exchange across the vast Eurasian steppes, historically consisting of the northern and southern routes. Originating from the eastern reaches of the northern grasslands, it traversed westward along the Mongolian steppes, coalescing along the northern flank of the Tianshan Mountains in present-day Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region before extending its reach into Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia, and Europe. The Chinese or eastern section of the Steppe Silk Road refers to the route centered around the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and the northern part of Xinjiang, covering the western part of northeastern China, as well as present-day Beijing, Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and the northern part of Ningxia. Along this route, numerous archaeological sites and artifacts have been discovered, including a notable number of gold and silver wares. The designs, patterns, and craftsmanship of these items not only reveal the historical exchanges and integration between the northern ethnic groups and the settlers of China’s Central Plains, but also reflect a synthesis of cultural and artistic influences from Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia, and Europe.

Early exchanges

In the tombs of the lower Xiajiadian culture in Inner Mongolia, archaeologists unearthed oval gold earrings dating back to a period predating the establishment of the Steppe Silk Road, corresponding to the late Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE). These earrings represent some of the earliest examples of gold and silver artifacts found within China to date. The tombs also yielded a distinctive set of flat, trumpet-shaped bronze earrings reminiscent of the artifacts of the Andronovo culture found in Kazakhstan. This similarity suggests the possibility that this particular earring style was introduced from Kazakhstan, possibly traversing through Xinjiang en route to the northern grasslands of China.

During the formative stages of the Steppe Silk Road, the northern steppes of China were inhabited by various ethnic groups, including the Xiongnu and Xianbei. Excavations of sights and tombs from this area have yielded a wealth of artifacts featuring animal designs, emblematic of the prominent features of Xiongnu and Xianbei cultures. The animal-shaped motifs and decorative patterns of Xiongnu gold and silver wares appear to share striking similarities with the “beast motifs” of the Scythian culture distributed along the north coast of the Black Sea and the North Caucasus region. For instance, the animal-patterned gold plaques, gold necklaces, silver torcs, and other gold adornments unearthed from the Xiongnu tombs at Aluchaideng, Inner Mongolia, bear resemblances in shape, pattern, and craftsmanship to those of the Scythians in Rostov Oblast and Kalmykia republic of Russia. These parallels provide a compelling demonstration of cultural exchanges between the inhabitants of Inner Mongolia and Russia at the time. 

The Xianbei gold and silver items from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220) present decorative styles and craftsmanship from Central Asia, West Asia, and Europe. A gold-plated iron belt buckle embedded with gemstones and mythical beast patterns, unearthed from the Tuoheqi Tomb at Tumed Left Banner, Inner Mongolia, was shaped by an embossing hammer with engraved details that was introduced from Persia in the early 3rd century. The mythical beast motifs on this buckle resemble the “Griffin” popular on the steppes of West Asia and Eastern Europe, characterized by its eagle head and wings. Similarly, the eight-ribbed gold bowl with flower mouth, featuring a design originating from the Iranian plateau, flourished in China. The gold ornament depicting a human engaged in combat with a beast, unearthed from the Halatuda tombs at Horqin Left Middle Banner, Inner Mongolia, displayed a shape and craftsmanship reminiscent of the pendants depicting “Dragon Master” unearthed from the Tillya tepe of Afghanistan. The wild boar patterned gold-plated iron belt buckle unearthed from the Lingpiyao tomb at Horinger County, Inner Mongolia, utilized techniques distinct from traditional Chinese inlay craftsmanship, indicating the fusion of the Xianbei gold and silver art from the Eastern Han era with the cultures of Central Asia, West Asia, and Europe.

Budding artistic exchanges

During the Jin (266–420) and Sixteen Kingdoms (304–439) period, an ethnic Xianbei tribe known as Murong and the Han people who assimilated into the Xianbei society established the Former Yan (337–370), Western Yan (384–394), and Later Yan (384–409) regimes at present-day Chaoyang, Liaoning Province. Its capital emerged as a vital hub marking the eastern origin of the Steppe Silk Road during that era. Numerous gold and silver artifacts discovered within this area showcased borrowed elements of Central Asian and West Asian cultures, represented by the buyao [lit. shake as you go] crowns. This type of headwear originated from Darouzhi [a nomadic tribe originally living in Northwest China, and moving westward after being forced by the powerful Xiongnu] after they migrated westward to Central Asia. Similar headwear was also found at the Tillya tepe of Afghanistan. The buyao crown was introduced to China during the Eastern Han period. 

From the late Northern Dynasties (439–581) to the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) periods, nations or regions that engaged in trade and cultural exchanges along the eastern and western sections of the Steppe Silk Road included the Turks, Uyghurs, Kushans, Hephthalites, Sassanians, Byzantines, Sogdians, Arabs, and others. Archaeologists have unearthed Roman gold coins, crocodile-patterned gold crowns, and silver high-footed cups from the Shuimogoukou tombs at Inner Mongolia. The gold coins date back to the mid-5th century, while the silver high-footed cups exhibit a distinct ancient Roman-Byzantine style. The Persian Sassanian silver coins, unearthed from the village of Bakouzi in Hohhot, date to approximately the late 5th to the late 6th century. The shape and decorative style of the pots and dishes unearthed from the Lijiayingzi tombs at Aohan Banner resemble Sogdian silverware.

Heyday of the Steppe Silk Road

The Steppe Silk Road thrived throughout the Song, Liao, Xia, Jin, and Yuan dynasties [from the 10th to 14th century]. Liao Dynasty gold and silver wares not only assimilated elements from Tang and Song cultures but also bore the imprint of Central Asian and West Asian cultures. Its pan-er [vessels of this design resembling an inverted peaked cap, with a ring underneath the half-moon handle] and high-footed artifacts were directly influenced by silverware from Persia, Sogdian, and Hephthalites. The Gold-gilded silver pan-er cup with swan goose and leaf motifs, unearthed from the Liao Dynasty Zhasitai tombs in present-day Ar Horqin Banner, bears handles and rings that commonly adorned Sogdian gold and silver wares, yet with traditional Chinese motifs—an indicator that the piece was likely an imitation of Sogdian gold ware. The early Liao high-footed silver cups were similar to those held by figures in 5th to 6th-century Hephthalite murals discovered in Balalyk Tepe, Uzbekistan. Later iterations of these cups commonly feature pearl roundel designs, evoking a distinctive Persian aesthetic. The double-lion pattern was likely adopted from West Asia, introduced through the Steppe Silk Road, while the Capricorn pattern was derived from the decorations of Tang Dynasty gold and silver wares, with its roots in Indian Buddhist art.

Before the formation of the Steppe Silk Road, gold and silver artistry of the northern grasslands of China already bore evidence of exchanges with Central Asia, West Asia, and Europe. With the flourishing of the Steppe Silk Road, the interactions between Eastern and Western ethnic groups intensified, and the gold and silver wares found on China’s northern grasslands began to present increasing elements of Western culture in their shapes, patterns, and craftsmanship. Commodities from the Chinese mainland such as porcelain, tea, and metal utensils were also transported to Western countries via the Steppe Silk Road, witnessing the historical interactions, exchanges, and integration of Eastern and Western ethnic cultures.

Zhang Jingming is a professor of ethnology from the North Minzu Univeristy.