Mariana Castro receives UNESCO Silk Roads Youth Research Grant

By Hannah McDonald
11/08/2021

Mariana Castro, a fourth-year PhD candidate at ISAW, is one of 12 recipients of the UNESCO Silk Roads Youth Research Grant. Her multidisciplinary project is entitled "Turquoise Extraction and Exchange in Pre-Modern Central Asia" and was selected from a competitive pool of nearly 800 research proposals in the field of the Humanities. According to the program description, this grant aims to emphasize the "shared heritage and plural identities of the Silk Roads, as well as its internal diversity, and potential in contemporary societies for creativity, intercultural dialogue, social cohesion, regional and international cooperation, and ultimately sustainable peace and development". Mariana will focus on the chaîne opératoire of turquoise stones to help reveal the profound links of connectivity and mobility that have tied people and objects together in central Eurasia since prehistoric times.

Both for its color and materiality, turquoise has consistently been an important stone in the economy, identity, and imaginary of Central Asian communities. Its wide distribution, particularly in the form of turquoise objects (including imitations in the form of ceramic tiles, glass, and pigments), speaks of intense and continuous contacts. Still, the question of how, when, and why these exchanges occurred remains fundamentally obscure.

Mariana will apply the grant to a preliminary survey of turquoise mining complexes in the inner Kyzyl Kum Desert of Uzbekistan, where this stone has been extracted since prehistoric times. The project has a particular interest in contributing to our understanding of pre-modern mining communities and clarifying ancient regional and supra-regional exchange networks. For this purpose, the survey will also focus on the collection and analysis of geological samples, which will be used to determine the chemical and mineralogical footprint of the Kyzyl Kum mines and form the foundation for a more detailed provenance study. An approach focusing on materials and their life history can add unprecedented insights into the long-lasting interconnected systems of trust, gift-giving, and regional craftsmanship. This approach also pushes us beyond issues of methodological nationalism, area studies paradigms, and nativist discourses, and fits in the current academic frameworks of past globalization(s), including the transregional circulation and flexibility of past societies, sedentary and nomadic alike.