The Silk Road refers to the legendary caravan trails that led from Chang’an, China to Rome. None of this was a single road, but routes throughout the countryside that crisscrossed constantly as silk was exported out of China, and imported into Rome.
Silk wasn’t the only product that traveled these routes, but it was the most lucrative. So much so, that it was forbidden for anyone directly outside the manufacture of the silk to try to learn the secrets of its making, and if caught trying to carry out the most precious of resources: caterpillar eggs of the silk moth and mulberry leaves, it was punishable by execution.
The trade lasted for hundreds of years, estimated from around the second century B.C. to the fifteenth century A.D., even though the technology had existed in China since 1500 B.C. No one else had such a lock on the trading of silk until the sixth century A.D., when Persia finally developed their own silk. Apparently, a lucky monk had managed to smuggle out some eggs in his staff, making it the first recorded incident of industrial espionage.
The trade has always been assumed to have begun in the second century B.C., with only slight interruptions in service by Mongol attacks, the building of the Great Wall, and the various Roman skirmishes as that empire pushed its borders outward. They did get within striking distance of China at some point, but never openly attacked. It may have been that they didn’t want to screw up a good trade agreement, or they may have had an idea of the massiveness of the Chinese armies, and thought better of it.
Recent archaeological discoveries have brought to light a theory that the actual production of silk may have actually started much earlier than originally thought. Examination of mummies thought to have been interred around 1000 B.C. contained strands of silk woven into the hair remaining on the mummy. The analysis revealed a pattern known to have originated in China. This means that they may have been producing silk as much as eight hundred years earlier than originally thought. If articles later found in seventh century B.C. graves in Germany, and fifth century B.C. tombs found in Greece are tested and found to also be linked to China at that point in time, then the only thing that can be trusted is that formal sanctioning of the trade by the ruling Emperor did not occur until the mid-second century B.C.
Not only do these discoveries extend the suspected timeline of the duration of trade along the Silk Road, it also extends its previously thought of range. If the Greek and German artifacts test true, this means that the end of the Silk Road was not Rome, as was previously thought. This could mean that trade was already underway with countries that Rome eventually invaded, or it could mean that Persia’s discovery of silk manufacturing techniques occurred earlier than thought of. Perhaps they found a way not only to create silk themselves, but also created the first professional knock-offs, as well.