Rostovtzeff Lecture Series

Gold Funerary Mask from the Tomb of Shi Daode (613-678) in Guyuan, Ningxia, China; Courtesy of Guyuan Museum.

Rostovtzeff Lecture Series

Silk Roads and Steppe Roads of Medieval China: History Unearthed from Tombs, IV

Jonathan K. Skaff

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar

A Tang Dynasty Ally in War and Ritual: The Tomb of Pugu Yitu (635-678) in Mongolia


Dr. Jonathan Skaff is a Visiting Research Scholar at ISAW who will deliver the annual M.I. Rostovtzeff Lectures in Spring 2016. Skaff is a Professor of History at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, where he also has served as Director of International Studies. He developed a lasting fascination with Eurasian cultural connections after teaching English in Shanghai in the mid-1980s and traveling through northwest China, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Tibet. Since receiving his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1998, his research has investigated medieval China’s frontier interactions with Inner Asia. Most prominently, his book, Sui-Tang China and its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power and Connections, 580-800 (Oxford University Press, 2012) revealed previously unrecognized cultural connections between China and peoples of the Eurasian steppe involving diplomacy, warfare, ideology, and political networking. A Chinese translation is forthcoming from the Social Sciences Academic Press.

Skaff’s Rostovtzeff lectures, entitled Silk Roads and Steppe Roads of Medieval ChinaHistory Unearthed from Tombs, comprise four case studies that use paper documents, stone epitaphs and artifacts excavated from tombs to illuminate China’s interactions with Eurasia. “Silk Roads” is the popular name for east-west land routes—linking East, South, and West Asia and serving as conduits transmitting luxury goods, technology, religion, and artistic motifs. “Steppe Roads” is a term coined by David Christian, who defines them as north-south routes linking the Eurasian steppe’s vast pastoral grasslands with the agricultural regions to the south that facilitated exchanges of goods such as Chinese silks and Mongolian horses. The lecture series argues that the Silk and Steppe Roads were networks through which Eurasian peoples, who perceived their societies to be unique, spun overlapping and entangled webs of culture. The transit hubs of Silk and Steppe Roads were particularly active sites of cultural contestation, experimentation, and mutual influence that had an impact on the historical development of China and Inner Asia.

The final lecture “A Tang Dynasty Ally in War and Ritual: The Tomb of Pugu Yitu (635-678) in Mongolia” takes the audience along the Steppe Roads from China to Mongolia to investigate another recently discovered tomb and epitaph. The history of Mongolia is little known between the First Türk (552–630) and Second Türk (682–742) Empires. Chinese historical records claim that the Tang Dynasty exerted suzerainty over Mongolia during the interregnum through vassal rulers, but offer few details after 660. Likewise, Uighur Empire (744-840) inscriptions assert an earlier period of rule over Mongolia in alliance with the Tang. The recent excavation of Pugu Yitu’s tomb and Chinese-language epitaph shows that an alliance endured through the 670s and throws new light on cultural connections between China and Mongolia.