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30 May 2006
Ancient Chinese city reveals life in desert 2,200 years ago

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, is located in the center of the Taklimakan Desert,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 flows more than 860 kilometers before disappearing in the sand in the Taklimakan Desert.
     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. 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 BCE-25 CE) as we did not discover any relics of Western Han and of the historical periods after the Western Han," said Idilis Abdurensule, a research fellow with the Xinjiang archaeological research institute.
     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 But unlike the other ancient cities discovered in the area, the Round Sand city can not be found in any historical documents.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.
     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.

Source: China Daily (22 May 2006)

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