Silk Road Revealed

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve got a thing for China. Not the ‘thing for China’ that most people seem to have these days, but a deep-seated curiosity that stems from a childhood spent following my father across Asia. I still remember the day I received my first piece of cloisonné. What a moment! I was so proud of this little piece of China. It was many years before I found out that the technique only spread to China from the Near East in the 14th century and it wasn’t originally Chinese after all …

Back to China. I’m a big believer that to understand contemporary China is to know its past. Seems Confucius had the same idea. Research shows that Early China was the fountainhead of Chinese civilisation and provided the foundation for a common cultural heritage that has characterised much of the East Asian world. The ideas and institutions created in Early China, the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) in particular, had a profound impact on society; one that is still being felt today.

The Tang is considered to be China’s golden age; a high point in Chinese civilization. There was a little renaissance in the Song (960-1279AD), but it never reached the dizzy heights of the Tang. The Tang was, by all accounts, a great period of progress, prosperity, power, innovation and stability in China and one that is still revered today.

Indiana Sarah - Tang Treasures

At the heart of the Tang lay the ancient capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), then a cosmopolitan metropolis renowned for its great wealth, sophistication and cultural diversity. Changan (meaning ‘perpetual peace’) in the Tang was like New York in the 20th Century – the centre of just about everything. It was also the start of the the world’s first information superhighway, the famous Silk Route, which stretched more than 6,500 km west to Byzantine Europe. Hence my ‘Chinese’ cloisonné …

With that in mind, when I found out the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) was hosting a new exhibition, entitled Tang 唐: Treasures of the Silk Road Capital, I couldn’t not go. So, fresh off the plane from Hong Kong last weekend, I made a beeline straight for the gallery.

The exhibition explores life in Chang’an during the Tang. Each of the 135-objects on display, carries with it a story from this extraordinary time; from the freedom and power of women to innovations in fashion and music, from the elevation of tea culture to religious tolerance and the rise and fall of Buddhism.

Indiana Sarah - Tang Archaeological Objects

What appealed to me most about this exhibition was the opportunity to see real archaeological objects make by real Tang artisans 1,400 or so years ago. Its mind-blowing! Although they are presented in a very traditional way (think static objects in perspex boxes), visitors are proffered a sort of living history and for me that is the power of this exhibition.

Excavated from a number of sites across Shaanxi, the province of which Xi’an is capital, the objects are not an interpretation of someone else’s ideas, they are literally what came out of the ground. The labels are minimal and the explanations the same. As a visitor, this gives you the opportunity to step back in time as  you have a chance to observe the objects and unravel the meaning for yourself. It is rare for such a traditional art gallery to do this, but AGNSW has done it well.

Objects aside, the stand out for me was Pure Land: inside the Mogador Grottoes at Dunhuang, an augmented-reality installation developed by City University Hong Kong and the Dunhuang Research Academy. Created by the same team that delivered Rebuilding the Tong-an Ships, the new media exhibition that I waxed lyrical about last year, Pure Land transports you to an ancient Buddhist grotto within the UNESCO World Heritage listedCaves of the Thousand Buddhas’– one of the world’s most remarkable, and now inaccessible, heritage sites along the Silk Road. It has been touring since 2012 and is absolutely not to be missed.

Indiana Sarah - Medicine Buddhas (c618–705) from the north wall of Cave 220, Mogao Caves, Dunhuang.

All in all, Tang 唐 was a fabulous way to while away an afternoon. I had a little archeology adventure that I didn’t have to plan myself and it was well worth my time. If you have an interest in China or would just like to broaden your horizons, I would encourage you to get along to the gallery, grab your boarding pass at the exhibition entrance and start your Silk Road journey. You won’t be sorry!

Tang : Treasures of the Silk Road Capital is located at the Art Gallery of NSW, Art Gallery Road, Domain, Sydney NSW 2000. Located on the eastern side of Sydney’s CBD, next to the Royal Botanic Gardens, getting there is easy. I drove (cheating, I know!) however it is only 15-minutes walk from the city centre, through the Botanic Gardens.

The exhibition will be on until 10 July 2016 and I would encourage you to go along to see it. The Gallery is open from 10am until 5pm every day, until 9pm on Wednesdays, and Adult tickets are just AU$16.

Want to share your own adventure in archaeology? Connect with me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram,  and, please, don’t forget to leave your comments below. I want to hear from you!

As ever,



PS: Big thanks to Art Gallery of New South Wales for along me to use several of their artefacts images; the rest of the photos are mine.

About Sarah Ward

I’m Sarah Ward, a maritime archaeologist, commercial diver and factual presenter with 16 years experience, both in and out of the water. I’ve investigated sites ranging from the Bronze Age to the modern, across more than 20 countries. A Visiting Professor at Dalian Maritime University and MIT Ocean Discovery Fellow, I am on a mission to bring archaeology to a broader audience, helping people to connect with the past in a meaningful way.

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(c) Indiana Sarah 2019