In addition to silk a wide variety of goods were sold and exchanged along the Silk Roads, ranging from essential goods such as food and other agricultural produce to more specialized luxury items such as precious stones, artwork and jewellery. In some cases the techniques and technology used to produce such valuable products was a closely guarded secret, which created a sense of mystery and maintained their high value. Accordingly, those who had travelled the Silk Roads, and who had perhaps witnessed the techniques and technology used to produce traded goods, were highly sought after for this first-hand knowledge. Knowledge, techniques and technology that had been developed during early history from the end of the first millennium BCE through to the 1st millennium CE that had previously been retained in certain regions such as China or the Iranian Plateau was spread across Central Asia and Europe via the Silk Roads creating a broad network of knowledge and technological exchange.
In terms of the exchange of agricultural knowledge, China was introduced to new crops such as grapes, cucumber and tea, whilst regions to the west were introduced to rice, pears and roses. One of the principle technologies that played an important role in agricultural developments in Silk Roads regions, particularly those in Western Asia, was irrigation. In many regions, and in particular in the Arabian Peninsula and parts of the Iranian Plateau and Central Asia, the arid climate made water a scarce and valuable resource. As such, irrigation was one of the most well developed technologies along these parts of the Silk Roads. In terms of intercultural exchange, much irrigation technology derived from that which had been developed by the Ancient Egyptians (3150 – 332 BCE), Romans (753 BCE – 476 CE) and Sasanians (224 – 651 CE). In parts of Western Asia, the ancient qanat system, a sophisticated set of underground canals, which remains in use today, was developed in the arid regions of Iran in the early first millennium BCE, and was later used in Oman and western China.
Another area of trade in which an exchange of production techniques took place was that of metals and metalworking used to produce coins, jewellery, plates etc. In terms of exchange, some of the technology and skills used to process metals, such as copper mining, first appeared in what is today Iraq around 8,000 BCE. From there, knowledge of metalworking spread westwards and eastwards to Afghanistan and then the Indian Subcontinent before it reached China and Southeast Asia. This movement came about through migrating peoples bringing with them new skills, as well as through the deliberate movement of metalsmiths and traders to new markets.
One specific example of this exchange in metalworking comes from the 7th century CE, when the Sogdians (6th century BCE – 11th century CE) in Central Asia introduced finely wrought chain mail armour, along with the skills used to make it, to China. Another good example is the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe who had a strong metal working tradition and who valued objects that could be easily transported across vast distances, such as gold jewellery. In these regions, the manufacture of precious jewellery was particularly important and the styles of this metalwork often reflected their knowledge and interest in animals and in particular horses. They traded these metal wares with the Chinese, the Persians and the Greeks, incorporating local trends and tastes into designs.
Similarly, in the field of ceramics there were technological advances such as the development of kilns in China that could reach 1450°C and produce very high quality delicate porcelain.
As various crafted goods and agricultural products were exchanged along the Silk Roads, eventually so too was the technology and techniques used to produce them. Often this information was as widely sought after as the products themselves, and those who had travelled the Silk Roads were in high demand as the potential bearers of this knowledge.