About this Project

2015 – 2016

When we look at maps of the premodern world we see centralized empires divided by bold lines. In fact, we are learning that the boundaries between empires were more often vibrant and fluid zones for intense production and exchange. This is particularly so for the less studied areas of contact between the East and West—the Central Asian steppes, the ports of the Indian Ocean, the mountain passes in the Caucasus and Hindu Kush.

The Imperial Interstices project (2016–2017) aimed to advance the nascent field of premodern global history by convening discussions among archaeologists, philologists, and premodern historians who specialize in civilizational spheres on both sides of the Eurasian landmass. A series of three interlinked workshops refocused scholarship on the places in between the East and West Asian empires of late antiquity (200-800 CE) rather than on the empires themselves. Through careful analysis of these interstitial societies, the project upended traditional notions of the Silk Road, which regard the regions as passive highways without relevant civilizations of their own. By investigating premodern interstitial regions as major centers of production, consumption, and influence in their own right—a project that is impossible to pursue within the confines of existing disciplinary fields—the researchers fostered the collaborative work needed to produce an integrated history of Eurasian late antiquity.

This is the right time and place for collaboration on premodern world history. The University of Chicago is an internationally recognized center for important research in Classical, South Asian, East Asian, and Near Eastern studies, and the Oriental Institute is home to premier archaeologists and philologists with expertise in the relevant geographical areas and time periods. Recent literature on the structural similarities between premodern civilizations has highlighted the need to study the interactions that connected—and, to varying degrees, shaped—these distinct and often distant societies. But scholars working on such questions rarely convene in interdisciplinary settings because their subfields require such high degrees of specialization. The Imperial Interstices project created space to facilitate collaboration and sustained engagement among specialists at the University. It also supported visits from outside experts whose insights on material and textual sources are crucial to the study of Eurasian interaction.

The workshops shifted attention away from the Roman, Chinese, Iranian/Islamic, and Indian centers in order to foreground the impact of neglected areas like the Central Eurasian steppes, Indian Ocean ports, and the passes of the Caucasus and Hindu Kush. Discussions focused on the interstitial merchants, political elites, and religious leaders who stimulated social change across Eurasia. Specialists in each of the categories presented research on their respective bodies of evidence in order to compare activities across Eurasia. Discussants brought the analyses together, identifying intersections and ruptures as a starting point for open-ended discussion.

The formal public presentations were preceded by informal private discussions, which allowed participants to become acquainted and identified areas of common interest and inquiry. These unstructured conversations helped establish a rapport among participants that transcended discipline and career stage, and the shared understanding enabled more focused discussion following the prepared talks. “It helped that the seminars were small,” noted Clifford Ando. “There was no way someone could sit back and listen. The form required sustained conversation among all participants.”

The discussions produced a shared vocabulary and three key canonical questions that will animate research going forward. Who were the actors and intermediaries responsible for transregional trade in late antiquity? To what extent were political regimes in the first millennium shaped by the exotic goods and styles that interstitial and imperial elites adopted? And how did religious institutions, especially monasteries, support transregional mobility and trade?

Recognizing the value of this new area of inquiry, and the need to continue nurturing the collaborative network fostered by the Imperial Interstices project, the Provost’s Office recently launched the Chicago Initiative for Global Late Antiquity. This new effort aims to make the University and its international centers a crossroads for scholars working toward global histories of the first millennium. It will support conferences, publications, interdisciplinary archaeological projects, and, perhaps most important, training in key skills for graduate students to move beyond the boundaries of their respective fields and disciplines.

Two workshops held in September 2017 at the University’s Center in Paris and at New York University considered new research perspectives on the Iranian world and Western Central Asia in late antiquity. More activities are being planned for the 2018–2019 academic year, and publications are forthcoming.


Whitney Cox on Chola History

July 30, 2017

In this Q&A with the Times of India, Associate Professor Whitney Cox (South Asian Languages and Civilizations ), a Faculty Fellow on our Imperial Interstices research project, shares his insights on social, economic, and political relations in the Chola kingdom during the reign of Kulottunga Chola (1070-1120 AD).

Whitney Cox on David Shulman’s “Tamil”

March 6, 2017

Faculty Fellow Whitney Cox, a principal investigator on the Imperial Interstices project, reviews David Shulman's Tamil, a "biography" of one of the world's oldest languages. "Gently humorous, frequently lyrical, and wearing great learning very lightly, the book’s prose admirably summons up what it might be like to listen to a series of lectures by a gifted teacher," Cox writes in The New York Review of Books.


There are no events associated with this project yet.