by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger
In the 5th Century CE, the world was a much more isolated place than it is today but it was still interconnected. Most people lived and died within 30 miles of where they were born. Yet even then, the world was an interconnected place where the far reaches could touch one another. Travel was restricted to by foot, horseback or boat. Regular communication depended upon trade routes or carrier pigeons. However, distance and geographical isolation did not prevent distant parts of the world from knowing about each other. The impact of foreign countries within a given country in the ancient world, both near and far, raises some interesting questions about interconnectedness, influence and the impact of telecommunications and air travel on the modern world. For context, let’s consider this recent archaeological find announced by the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.
On Friday, they announced that they found three glass beads in a tomb near Kyoto that can be traced to ancient Roman manufacturing techniques. The tomb itself dates back to the Yamato period of Japanese history, an era marked by inter-provincial warfare when the Imperial capitol was located in Nara. The definition of the Yamato period (named for the clan that became the Imperial dynasty during that time) is somewhat disputed. Conventionally assigned to the period 250–710 (including both the Kofun period (c 150-538) and the Asuka period (538-710)), the actual start of Yamato rule is disputed and the Kofun period is considered an archaeological period while the Asuka period is considered an historical period. This distinction is unpopular with modern Japanese historians, but the period does contain demarcations in Japanese culture. The Kufun period marks a time when Chinese and Korean culture are impacting Japanese culture and the dominate religious influences were the domestic Shinto religion and the Chinese imports Confucianism and Taoism. The Asuka period marks both the rise to Imperial supremacy by the Yamato clan and the introduction of Buddhism to Japanese culture which was to have a long and profound effect. The tomb the beads were found in dates from the late Kofun period which is named for the style of burial mounds commonly used by nobles and dignitaries of the time.
To provide context, at the height of the Roman Empire under Trajan and Hadrian in the 1st and 2nd Century CE, the Empire stretched from modern day England south across the Mediterranean and in to what is now Iraq. The glass making techniques of the beads utilized natron – a natural salt best known for being part of the Egyptian embalming process for creating mummies. Although the process had been used by the Romans since at least the peak of their Empire, the beads found in the Kofun near Kyoto date from a tomb created as the Roman Empire of the late 400’s and early 500’s was in decline and rapidly losing territory. While it may come as a surprise to some, this is not the first evidence of radically distant and disparate contact between East and West that pre-dates Marco Polo‘s famous trade mission of the 13th Century CE.
In 1954, in Helgö on Ekerö Island in Lake Mälaren in Sweden, archaeologists were excavating a Viking ruin dated to the 8th or 9th Century CE when they found a small bronze buddha subsequently dated to the 6th Century CE and of suspected Indian origin. Some suspect the buddha came along for the ride with Vikings travelling the “Amber route”, one of the vast Viking trade networks which utilized rivers to transport amber, silk and others goods to the north through the Russian rivers and stepps although others think it was taken from treasure obtained raiding Ireland although how the Irish would have came to be in possession of such a statue remains a mystery. In 2010, archaeologists and genetics researchers examining a Roman graveyard near Vagnari in Southern Italy found a 2,000 year-old skeleton with mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) that showed a body buried there had East Asian lineage.
If the interconnectedness of the ancient world is to be believed on the evidence (and I think it should), what does that say about the modern world where cultures can influence each other via telecommunications at the push of a button and easy air travel – discounting the hassles of airport security – is readily available? Is “globalization” inevitable as cultures meet, merge, and share ideas or will geographical isolation still shape individual pockets of relatively homogeneous culture? Will geographically closer cultures tend to have dominant influence such as the relationship between ancient Japan and China or modern Mexico and America or will technology make geography increasingly irrelevant? Are we moving toward a universal human culture or not? If so, are we moving toward a universal set of laws or not? Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Something in between?
What do you think?