The Most Important Findings of Niya in Taklamakan

by Wang Binghua

(This article was originally published at China Culture Pictorial Vol 1.2 April 1996)

No one can believe that there was a rich and varied cmmunity that once thrived deep in today's Taklamakan Desert some 1,600 years ago.

The Niya River winds through the southern Taklamakan Desert for about 210 km and its head waters are fed by melted snow from the towering the Mount Kunlun, known was Nanshan Mountain in ancient times. The river gradually dries up near a small Uygur village Autonomous Region.

After three years of research and digging, archaeologists and scientists have unearthed eight tombs in the Taklamakan desert. The bodies buried there still wear the coloured clothing of their burials.

Sprawling over an area 20 km in circumference around what is now the dried bed of Niya River, Niya is believed to have reached its zenith between 500 to 1,000 AD. Eventually, however, the city became buried in the desert sand and slipped in oblivion.

The remains of the lost ancient city of Niya are believed to the ancient Jingjue Kingdom. The ancient Jingjue Kingdom was at the sounth end of the Silk Road, with a distance of 4,400 km to Chang'an, the ancient capital of the Han Dynasty. Just like other places in China, it was under the control of several officials appointed by the central government. There lived more than families with a population of more than 3,000 people. The extinction of Niya has left archaeologists and scientists many questions to answer. It has also given the ruins of the ancient holy city a feeling of mystery.

The city's ruins were lost until the early of the 20th century, when the British explorer Sir Aurel Stein discovered the ruin and archaeologists have continued their exploration of the area ever since.

The Chinese archaeologists took the steps to the ruins in Niya in 1959. They achieved great a lot in the exploration of Niya, but had to give up further research because of financial problems.

A Sino-Japanese expedition team of archaeologists and scientists have led expeditions on the site with the approvement by China State Bureau of Cultural Relics in 1993. On this year's trek, 36 members have discovered many new details that both answer and raise questions about the ancient mystery. This year has brought the richest yields in the field work about Niya in nearly a century.

The 1995 expedition involved measuring the size of the Niya ruin, analyzing the ancient environment, and most importantly, digging out a tomb group. The eight tombs were discovered at the northern part of the ruin. Some of them were already exposed when they were laid out in hollowed out logs or wooden trunks with an outer coffin.

Dried out by the deserts heat and virtualy undisturbed, the bodies, clothes and burial articles are in excellent condition. Due to the lack of adequate facilities on site, the artifacts and bodies were taken to Urumqi for further scrutiny. The archaeological analysis has already started for tomb number three and five.

The tomb number three contains a male and female. Both are splendidly attired in silk hoods, colourful robes, trousers, shirts, and embroidered leather-- soled shoes.

The two were buried along with special possessions. The man had a quiver and bow, metal arrowheads and a lined Chinese--jacket. The woman wore gold earrings and a glass--bead necklace. A lacquer box with her comb, makeup and sewing kit was set next to her. The identity of the two people has not been decided, but the artifacts seem to suggest that these were the buried sites for the wealthy.

The details of the brocade showed esceptional care. The edge of the silk hasn't been untraveled and the fabric still has its originally luster. Even the green and yellow, colours which easily fade, are preserved.

Pieces of brocade, much less in quantity and variety, were found in Niya in 1959 and in Loulan. On cursory obervation, the silk has three motifs: animal patterns, geo--metric designs and auspicious tokens, all of which have never been encountered before.

The Chinese characters on the brocase read, "The appearance of the five stars in the east is favourable to China." This corresponds directly to the description written in two historical books of the Han and Jin dynasties. All this gives evidence of the date of the brocades.

This year's field work also included the excavation of a large dwelling site, and the clearing of three ruined buildings. Through these efforts, archaeologists have gained a better understanding of the city planning and construction structure. The overall--planning seems to suit the climate and the geographic conditions. Among the burial articles is a place of food with mutton, pears, and grapes. This variety serves as evidence of oasis agriculture and livestock raising.

Now deserted, the ancient Niya was a prosperous kingdom called Jingjue at the southern end of the Silk Road. Through a string of oasis towns like Jingjue, camel caravans would cut across the Taklamakan Desert and carry goods from China to Central Asia from where they eventually found their way to Europe.

(Broze mirror from Han dynasty found from the site)

How did it comes about the mysterious end of the city? How many people were buried there in the tomb area? What did they die of? It is clear now that the man and woman were buried at a different times, but why should they be buried together? Archaeologists are still probing into these questions. The field work of the Niya ruin will take at least another 10 years, and the follow--up researches will certainly take longer.

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