CHINA / Regional

Ancient city reveals life in desert 2,200 years ago
Updated: 2006-05-22 14:58

Chinese and French archaeologists claim to have discovered the ruins of an ancient city which disappeared in the desert in Northwest China more than 2,200 years ago.

The ancient city, shaped like a peach, is located in the center of the Taklimakan Desert, the second largest shifting desert in the world, covering a total area of 337,600 square kilometers, in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The perimeter of the city walls is 995 meters, with the height ranging from three meters to 11 meters. Archaeologists found traces of city gates and passages at the southern and eastern walls.

The city walls were built from branches of poplar trees and branches of the Chinese tamarisk, a kind of willow. A protective slope was created outside the city walls and filled with branches, reeds, silt and dung of domesticated animals.

The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regional Archaeological Research Institute and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique of France jointly launched an archaeological program in 1993.

They aimed to explore the Keriya River Valley area, a river that originates in the glaciers on the northern slope of the Kunlun Mountains and flows more than 860 kilometers before disappearing in the sand in the Taklimakan Desert.

"Our biggest success was the discovery of the ancient city in 1994," said Idilis Abdurensule, a research fellow with the Xinjiang archaeological research institute.

Chinese and French archaeologists made five excavations at the site of the ancient city from 1993 to the end of 2005. Both sides began studying their findings since the beginning of this year and have made some progress in their research, Abdurensule told Xinhua on Monday.

Carbon dating by French archaeologists shows that the city wall dated back 2,200 years.

"We think the city had disappeared before the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.) as we did not discover any relics of Western Han and of the historical periods after the Western Han," said Abdurensule, adding this was the oldest city ever discovered in Xinjiang.

In the late 19th century, ruins of a Tang Dynasty (618-907) town were found in an area about 200 kilometers south of this ancient city, and the ruins of a town of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 AD) to the Jin Dynasty (265-420) period were discovered in an area 43 kilometers south of this ancient city.

The Uygurs of Yutian County, 300 kilometers south of the ancient city, call the area where the ancient city was found "Youmulakekum", meaning "round sand", leading the archaeologists to name the ancient city "The Old City of Round Sand". But unlike the other ancient cities discovered in the area, the Round Sand city can not be found in any historical documents.

Archaeologists discovered more than 20 tombs in the areas around the city, only three of which remained intact. In one of the tombs, the bodies of two males, sporting pigtails and wigs, were found facing each other. In two others, a man and a woman were found in each.

French archaeologists said the corpses dated back 2,100 years according to C14 dating, and the four people belonged to the Caucasoid group of the Caucasian race. However, they could not explain where the people were from.

Generally speaking, the Caucasoid group mainly live in Europe, West Asia and northern Africa.

The people wore woolen fabric and leather clothes. They also had ornaments on their clothes, which were made of wolf hide and some of them had ornaments on hats and waistbands. One woman was wearing a red agate ornament around her neck and leather gloves and ornaments made of shell.

The findings show that these people were skillful in textiles, and they used wool from sheep and camels to make clothes, said Corinne Debaine Francfort, a French scholar who participated in the excavation.

The people could dye wool into bright red, yellow, blue, purple, black, white and coffee by using dyestuff from plants, minerals and even from insects, said Francfort.

The Round Sand city could have been a place where goods from west and east were traded, said Francfort, saying "Agate ornaments could have come from the West and shell ornaments from the East."

Archaeologists also found skeletons of many animals which, according to archaeologists, show that the animal husbandry, fishery and hunting were very important parts of the lives of the people.

Irrigation ditches were also found in the areas around the city ruins, which show Round Sand people had developed irrigated farming, said French archaeologist Henri Paul Francfort, adding that they also found traces of wheat and millet, many different-sized saddle-shaped millstones and numerous caches for storing grain inside the city.

The residential areas were located in the northern part of the Round Sand city. "Almost all the things in the city were made from poplar trees, including the city walls, city gates, houses and tombs, and also the daily necessities such as wooden barrels, bowls and combs," said Abdurensule. "They also used poplar tree branches to cook meals and produce heating during winter. However, not a single poplar tree can be found in the area today."

Archaeologists did not find any trace of written materials, symbols or anything that could tell the history of the city.

Based on analysis of satellite pictures and on-the-spot investigations, archaeologists found that the Round Sand area used to be covered by many rivers and thick forest, a home to 98 kinds of wild vertebrate, said Ma Ming, a research fellow with the Xinjiang Ecological and Geological Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

As for the reason behind the city's disappearance, Abdurensule explained that the Keriya River had retreated gradually due to the expansion of desert and the local environment had deteriorated due to the excessive felling of trees. The people had to move to other places to survive.

The result is that the city was not recorded and today's people can not know its religion, social organizations, language and origin, Abdurensule said.

The final report on the discovery of the Round Sand city is expected to come out next year.