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Interdisciplinary team secures ERC grant to explore kingdoms of Asia

13 February 2014

As part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers, Dr Nathan W. Hill, lecturer in Tibetan and Linguistics at SOAS, University of London, has secured a €7 million European Research Council (ERC) Synergy Grant to explore the interlocking kingdoms in Asia and their interactions between South, South East and Central Asia. The project focuses on the literary, economic and religious developments of the fourth and fifth centuries CE, a crucial period of cultural formation and international exchange.

The SOAS scholar joins co-investigators Dr Sam van Schaik, from the British Library, and Dr Michael Willis, from the British Museum. The team brings together a unique range of expertise from linguistics, history and religious studies to geography, archaeology and art history.

The project Beyond Boundaries: Religion, Region, Language and the State was one of 13 selected to receive a share of the €150 million ERC Synergy Grants. The project will work across modern intellectual, geographical and political boundaries for the first time, recovering the diverse cultures, complex polities and varied religious networks of the fourth and fifth centuries. The project will create a new global vision for the history for Asia.

Beyond Boundaries will examine the cultural constitution and configuration of the centres of political power, map how Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali – the languages of political and religious discourse – came to be used across Asia, and analyse how temples, monastic organisations and landed estates emerged as autonomous socio-economic institutions with stable endowments.

Dr Hill will be focusing on Burma and South East Asia, and, working alongside a research associate, will be deciphering the Pyu language for the first time. Dr Willis will focus on South Asia and Dr van Schaik on Central Asia, particularly the Silk Road. Dr Ulrich Pagel, Reader in Languages and Religions of Tibet and Central Asia at SOAS, is also associated with the grant. In 2012, Dr Pagel and Dr Hill secured AHRC funding for a separate project on Tibetan computational linguistics."

Dr Hill said: “We are delighted to receive this grant. The period we are studying - from Central Asia to Burma and beyond – has remained a specialist subject, little-mentioned outside area studies. Through this project our aim is to re-envision Asian history by generating new evidence based on links across disciplines, regions and countries. SOAS will play a central role in this project as the events related to the grant will be held at the School, including monthly project team meetings with colleagues from Leiden, Budapest, Paris, and Cambridge.”

Former ERC President Helga Nowotny said towards the end of her mandate last year: "The eagerly awaited outcome of the second ERC Synergy Grant has yielded some truly exciting science among the 13 projects selected. Applicants have understood well that 'Synergy' entails the unique combination of individual skills and knowledge, often crossing disciplinary boundaries in exceptionally innovative ways. The results prove that the strength of the Synergy Grant lies in enabling up to four top scientists to jointly tackle a challenging problem where none of them could succeed alone. The Scientific Council will soon carefully assess its experience with this innovative pilot scheme.”

The projects selected by the ERC are at the crossroads of many disciplines and bring together two to four outstanding researchers to engage in significant research. The 13 projects being funded by these prestigious grants will support 45 scientists based in 11 countries.