NYU Shanghai Lecture: A Tale of Two Tombs

Tang-Turkic Diplomacy and Ritual in Mongolia

Jonathan Skaff

Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania

Burial goods and an epitaph recently excavated from two contemporary Tang-style tombs in central Mongolia provide a rich record of political and cultural interactions between Tang and Turkic political elites in the mid-seventh century. One tomb contained the Chinese-language epitaph of a Tang ally, Pugu Yitu (635-678) and the scattered remains of some grave goods left by looters. The other tomb, only eleven kilometers away at Ulaan Khermiin, lacked an epitaph, but was undisturbed, retaining a full complement of rich burial objects. Though the epitaph’s rhetoric provides a conventional Tang-centered narrative of Pugu’s subservience to the dynasty, a careful examination of the epitaph and contents of the two tombs provides evidence of reciprocity and cultural compromises in the political relationship. On one hand, the design of the tombs, funerary ritual described in the epitaph, and many burial goods were typical of the Tang. On the other hand, both funerals have signs of local practices and tastes including cremations, a gold hoard in the coffin of the Ulaan Khermiin tomb, and some unusual wooden and terracotta figurines. These tombs teach a broader lesson about the value of an interdisciplinary methodology. Historians who only consider the contents of the epitaph will miss important clues about the cultural orientation of the deceased. Likewise, archaeologists and art historians who concentrate only on material culture will not understand the full social and political context.

Dr. Jonathan Skaff is a Professor of History and Director of International Studies at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. After teaching English in Shanghai in the mid-1980s, Skaff pursued graduate studies at The University of Michigan where he received his Ph.D. in history in 1998. His research reassesses early medieval China’s frontier interactions with Inner Asia via borderlands and the Silk Roads. He has published on various aspects of political, military, cultural and economic relations. He delivered the annual M. I. Rostovtzeff Lectures and was a visiting research scholar at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in 2015-2016. The four lectures will be published as Silk Roads and Steppe Roads of Medieval China: History Unearthed from Tombs (Princeton University Press, Rostovtzeff series). His book Sui-Tang China and its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power and Connections, 580-800 (Oxford University Press, 2012) received fellowship support from the Institute for Advanced Study, National Endowment for Humanities, and the American Philosophical Society. A paperback edition and Chinese translation will be published in 2018. Other publications include book chapters from publishers such as Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford university presses, and peer-reviewed articles in journals such as Asia MajorJournal of World History, and Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient.

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