The Space Between – Placing ‘Culture’ in Artistic Exchange


Several late sixth-century stone items of tomb furniture unearthed over the past decade in north China have reconfirmed the role of the Silk Road in facilitating exchange between China and regions to its west. Scholars have identified motifs in the decoration of these tomb elements and linked them to Chinese or Zoroastrian traditions, searched for discernible narratives, or investigated the deceased's ties to Central Asia and service as leaders of their communities. While the individuals buried in these tombs or their ancestors likely hailed from Sogdiana, other features of the objects defy clear interpretation according to artistic paradigms in either north China or Central Asia. The tombs also demonstrate a range of affinities with the traditions of both regions and challenge our assumptions about culture and the coherency of traditions in the context of exchange. This essay takes a broad view of these stone objects and examines the occupants, tomb contexts, and the diverse representation on the tomb furniture as a collective group. Drawing together biographic, iconographic, and archaeological evidence, together with relevant iconography from examples in museum collections, I reconsider the methods by which these pieces have been examined and demonstrate the varied relationships their occupants had to Central Asia and the local communities they inhabited. I reorient the focus away from distinct markers of one culture or another toward the larger picture that characterizes the complex identities of individuals in late sixth-century north China. I posit a thematic rationale for iconographic choices that transcend affiliation with one region or another and argue that while specific elements may demonstrate affinities with extant traditions, taken as a whole the general diversity of artistic elements and burial practices suggests that these individuals occupied a space between paradigmatic "cultures."


University of Michigan, Department of the History of Art

Publication Date


Publication Title

Ars Orientalis


Art History

Additional Department

East Asian Studies

Document Type



Issue: Theorizing Cross-Cultural Interaction Among the Ancient and Early Medieval Mediterranean, Near East and Asia





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