In promoting its “Belt and Road Initiative” – an ambitious plan to open new markets for China by building logistics and trade infrastructure from Asia to Europe and Africa – Beijing has drawn parallels with the fabled Silk Road, which operated between the three continents from roughly 200BC to 1400.

But, as a matter of history, the Belt and Road is completely different to the Silk Road. In fact, there was no actual Silk Road, which is a label in widespread use only since the late 20th century that refers variously and imprecisely to long-distance trade and interactions across Afro-Eurasia.

The Silk Road was never a formal network directed by one state power, as the Chinese propose with Belt and Road. There were numerous mutable trading networks, some dealing in silk, raw and woven, and others not. Some started in China or Rome, some in Central Asia, India or Africa, and many other places. Journeys were made by sea, river and land, or by all three.

When Hong Kong was a way station on the Maritime Silk Road – new exhibition showcases recent discoveries about city’s trading past

Sometimes governments were involved in trade, sometimes private traders, and sometimes it was both.

Despite these ambiguities, the Silk Road should not be dismissed as a concept. The Silk Road has acquired a familiarity that has real value, because it has brought regions that are rarely covered in modern historical writing to greater prominence and accessibility. As a result, the term’s growing popularity has encouraged a more global historical viewpoint.

Central to the idea of the Silk Road is the interaction across boundaries, be they chronological, geographical, cultural, political or imaginary. Those interactions, and the effect they had on individuals and their cultures, are the Silk Road’s real legacy, especially since the vast majority of objects of the Silk Road – everyday and luxury, traded or not – disappeared long ago.

Food, wine and medicines were consumed. Slaves, elephants and horses died. Textiles, wood and ivory decayed. Glass and pottery were broken. Only in rare cases did objects survive, by design or accident, as in hoards of metal or glass, or in burials when objects were sufficiently valued to be interred with corpses.

Nevertheless, the story of a single object can sometimes encapsulate the rich interactions of the Silk Road. Such is the case with a gilt-silver ewer found in the tomb of a sixth-century general and his wife in what is now northern China.

The ewer was probably made at the heart of the Silk Road, in Bactria (present-day northern Afghanistan), possibly when the region was under the rule of peoples who had migrated from the borders of China and the steppe, the Hephthalites.

The ewer, 37 centimetres tall, displays a diverse background. Made with Sasanian Persian metalwork hammering techniques, it features both literary motifs from classical Greece, far to the west, as well as influences from India, to the south. The biography of this ewer therefore covers the whole geographical length and breadth of the Silk Road.

In one sense, the ewer spans 3,000 years. The scenes portrayed on it date to classical Greece, 1,500 years before its actual creation. Since its burial, it has spent another 15 centuries to the east of its birthplace.

China’s new world order ‘unrealistic’ if built on belt and road alone, senior US diplomatic observer says

Everything about this piece encapsulates Silk Road movement and interaction. Its form and materials, for example: metalware ewers spread from Rome through Sasanian Persia to central Asia, while in China the form is usually emulated in ceramics. Each place gave its own characteristics to the ewer’s basic form: the square handle of the Sasanians (the last Persian empire before the rise of Islam in the seventh century) or the camel’s head on this Bactrian piece. But perhaps its most fascinating features are the scenes from the Trojan War depicted around the ewer.

Stories of the Trojan War probably travelled eastward long before the Silk Road, with people, on objects and possibly in texts. In the fourth century BC, the Greek world and its influence expanded dramatically, owing to the campaigns of Alexander the Great (who lived 356BC–323BC).

Alexander reached Bactria in 329BC, conquering it over the next two years. On his victory in 327BC, he took a bride, Roxane, who is usually described by historians as a Bactrian. Although Alexander’s rule did not last long (he died in Babylon four years later), the introduction of Greek language, administration, architecture, art and culture eastward into Central Asia was to have a significant influence, causing the so-called Hellenisation of this region.

And this influence might have spread further east: some have attributed to it the appearance of life-size realistic statuary in China, exemplified by the Terracotta Warriors guarding the tomb of Shihuangdi, the first emperor of a unified China (259BC-210BC).

The ewer probably did not stay more than a few decades at most in Bactria before being taken east, to Guyuan, in present-day China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region

While aspects of the Greek legacy were adopted into Roman culture, and while it is plausible to believe that depictions of the Trojan War were readily understood – and used – by many in the Roman Empire, it is more difficult to understand how such images were viewed by the peoples on what was once the fringes of Alexander’s empire in central Asia.

The craftsmen of Hephthalite Bactria who produced the ewer were separated from the story and its birthplace by a millennium and some 5,000km. Even if the episodes depicted on the ewer can be traced back to Greek mythology, they might have been incorporated into some other more local narrative by this time and would have been described by their makers and owners in a way that we would not recognise.

The ewer probably did not stay more than a few decades at most in Bactria before being taken east, to Guyuan, in present-day China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Its new owner, Li Xian (AD502-569), was the son of immigrants. According to the biography inscribed on stone inside his tomb, his ancestors were from the steppe to the north and had moved to the border regions some generations before, taking a Chinese surname.

How 3D imagery of Dunhuang Silk Road cave paintings helps preserve Unesco site and shows murals in new light

We do not know whether they had retained their own language, or even what that language was, but the biography shows that they had not lost the knowledge of their northern steppe ancestry.

In this way, the ewer demonstrates how culturally complex China has always been, with waves of invaders and migrants, especially from the porous and oft-challenged borders to the north and northwest. We should not assume that people living in China at that time were accustomed to being part of a unified empire or that everyone saw this as the norm or ideal.

In the fourth and fifth centuries, northern China, including western areas into the trade routes and along the Hexi corridor, was under the rule of the proto-Mongol Xianbei people, who also came from the northern steppe. About the time that Li was born, the Xianbei ruled from Luoyang on the Yellow River, but their empire was in trouble.

Rebellions in the north and battles between competing factions led to the empire’s division in AD534. One of the reasons given for this was the growing divide between the regional rulers in the north, who still retained their contacts with the steppe, and what these rulers saw as the increasingly distant and sinified Xianbei elite in the capital, Luoyang.

In AD525, a Hephthalite envoy passed through Guyuan en route to Luoyang. He was accompanied by a lion, one of his diplomatic gifts

As a military commander posted to frontier stations, Li would have travelled considerably, and many of his travels would have taken him along the trade routes of the Silk Road, as well as to the capital, to give reports and receive orders. In AD525, a Hephthalite envoy passed through Guyuan en route to Luoyang. He was accompanied by a lion, one of his diplomatic gifts. This was not a unique gift: lions were presented to the Chinese court by Tocharians in the seventh and eighth centuries, and one sent from Samarkand in AD635 received an imperially commissioned rhapsody in its honour.

Li would have been a young man in AD525, but given the status of his family, they probably would have entertained the envoy during his stay, and possibly they received the ewer as a gift.

How did Li see and use the ewer? Was it an exotic piece brought out for formal banquets, filled with local grape wine for his guests, and intended to reflect his status and cosmopolitanism? Or was it used at less formal occasions, or not used at all?

For all we know, he might have acquired it only shortly before his death and never put it to use.

These are tantalising questions but ones on which we can only speculate. The same goes for what Li made of the design on the ewer. Did he know anything of the Trojan War story, even if it had become assimilated into local myths? Or was the piece interpreted as depicting another local story? Or not interpreted at all, and just seen as an attractive or exotic design?

Not all people ask questions about the world around them and the objects they encounter. Indeed, perhaps this ewer held more interest and value to his wife: theirs was a joint tomb. But this object and its journey reflect a time of cultural movement and encounters – the story of the Silk Road – that left an imprint on pre-modern society across Afro-Eurasia and still resonates today.

Susan Whitfield was curator of the Central Asian collection of manuscripts at the British Library for 25 years. Her latest book, released this year, is Silk, Slaves and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road. This article was produced by Zocalo Public Square (zocalopublicsquare.org).