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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Archaeological discoveries and the Silk Road

Henri-Paul Francfort

Texte intégral

1September 2006

2Xinjiang (Uyghur Autonomous Region) encircles Taklimakan, a vast cold desert, located between the Tian Shan mountain range in the north and the Kunlun mountain range in the south (about 1,000 km E-W and 500 N-S). Today, the desert runs alongside agricultural oases, which are situated along the banks of rivers flowing down from these mountains. Some of these oases were much larger in the past than they are today. Further north, Xinjiang encompasses a section of the Altai Mountains, colossal mountainous massifs that were the territory of nomadic shepherds for a long time.

3Over the years, archaeological discoveries – some of which have been spectacular – have made both the scientific world and the general public aware of a universe called the “Silk Road”. Since the 1st century, this world has shown a number of distinctive characteristics, which, to a certain extent, are widely known and can be broadly outlined. We can retrace the long distance trade routes of Chinese silk from the Han Empire towards the West, the Kushan Empire (India, Afghanistan), the Parthian Empire (Central Asia, Iran and Mesopotamia) and the Roman Empire. It is even easier to retrace how trade developed much later between the Tang dynasty in China and the Sogdian, Hephthalite Huns and Sassanian kingdoms until the Byzantium Empire. We also have a good understanding of how Buddhism penetrated into China from India through these immense barren deserts, while Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity made their way in from the Middle East. It is widely acknowledged that languages as varied as Khotan Saka (a type of Iranian language), Uyghur (one of the Turkic languages), and the mysterious Tocharian (Indo-European language close to the ancient Italic languages) were spoken and written in Xinjiang. Everyone is aware that these civilisations have been made accessible to us through the impressive remains of large Buddhist sanctuaries, decorated with statues and bright wall paintings and precious manuscripts, which were obtained during expeditions to these sanctuaries around 1900. Everyone has seen and admired, or will do in the future, the collections of the Guimet museum (Musée Guimet, Musée National des Arts Asiatiques), France’s National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris), or those belonging to the world’s biggest museums.

  • 1 Centre national de la recherche scientifique/French Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Institut du Patrim (...)

4At Karadong, the remains of an oasis dating from the Han-Jin era was discovered during excavations carried out by the Franco-Chinese Archaeological Mission of Keriya1. The beams of both a small fort and certain houses, like a shipwreck found in the sand, had already been partly located by Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein, explorers at the site at the beginning of the last century. However, it is thanks to the shifting sand and long walks in the sand dunes, that (recently) two Buddhist sanctuaries could be studied closely. These temples were decorated with mural paintings dating back to the 3rd century, which are of an Indian style and rank among the most ancient mural paintings known. The fragments were found among the rubble of the ruined walls and they had to be removed from the rubble, transported, and then carefully restored. Today, some of them are on display at the Urumqi museum.

5Owing to its monasteries, Buddhism has a strong presence, but who knows if rare fragments of writings by Evagrius Ponticus, translated into the Sogdian language, were not also found on these roads? Evagrius was a Greek monk who was born in Asia Minor in the 4th century, and later became a hermit in the Egyptian desert. He played an important role in Latin monachism, as well as in the oriental monastic tradition. However, while parts of his treaties were destroyed by the Greek tradition (such as the heretic teachings of Origen), other parts were conserved, not only in Coptic, Arabic, Syriac and Armenian, but some of them also circulated in Sogdian for central Asian communities. This obviously meant the Silk Road but also the route of the anchorites.

6As a result of the archaeological excavations carried out in both the arid conditions of the desert and the cold high mountain regions, we are able to understand the links and relationships between these different, but interconnected, cultures. These places not only preserved metallic and mineral materials, like everywhere else, but also organic materials, including textiles. Like all bio-archaeology studies, the study of these materials delving deep into the evolutionary dynamics of the environmental context, opens up new perspectives. This is how relations between the Xinjiang oasis and the rest of the world began; relations that are only becoming known today.

7Let us consider these origins by going back in time, first of all to the Hellenised Orient, then through the Achaemenid Persian Empire, contemporaries of the Zhou Dynasty and the Warring States period. We will finally try to go back as far as the year 1000 BC and venture into the second and even third millennium, when the rivers spread out into the endoreic deltas, far into Taklimakan, allowing the oases to thrive. Today, it is the monotonous, sheep-like – or rather “camel-like” – mounds of sand dunes, stretching into infinity that dominate this region.

8What happened during the Hellenist Period? After Alexander the Great, several strong Greek kingdoms dominated Bactria (now part of northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), which was located in the Indus basin at that time. To our knowledge, their influence never stretched as far east as Pamir. However, coming from this Hellenised Orient, which they left such a profound impression on and where art took on a new significance, like an aura of images reaching the depths of Inner Asia, was a bronze statuette of a Greek hoplite with a helmet bearing a 4th-century crest not discovered in the Ili valley? For us, two reproductions of Hellenised paintings on cloth made in Central Asia will be used as examples here. The first was found a long time ago as a result of a Soviet mission in Mongolia, in a nomad tomb (Xiongnu or Huns) at the Noin Ula site that had been preserved by the cold. It represents noble knights and a frieze of Erotes (winged gods of love) in foliage. The second was discovered by IPAX in Xinjiang, in Shanpula, south of Taklimakan, in a grave of farmers, which the aridity had kept intact. It showed the effigy of a sovereign with a diadem and armed with a spear and a centaur. Looking at three quarters of these “portraits”, the well-balanced contours of flesh indicate that the origins of these pictures come from the Hellenistic period. Furthermore, the tombs in which these discoveries were made had preserved the remains of certain mummified bodies.

9The Achaemenid, which dominated Asia in the middle of the 1st millennium (6th – 4th century BC), like the Greeks, never reigned beyond Pamir, yet, their influence spread. The frozen tombs of the Altai Mountains, in Siberia (Pazyryk), Kazakhstan (Berel) and Mongolia and also certain tombs in the Tian Shan mountains in Xinjiang (Alagou) have marvellously preserved the traces of Persian art among the Scythian nomads, as far back as a few decades after the end of the last Darius’s reign. There, the ideas of the royal court of formal beauty, which had developed in Persepolis and Suse and had been transformed into to gold-plated objects, cloth, carpets, felt and pieces of wood, which encountered the skilful graphic art of Chinese silk that was coming from the heart of the Middle Empire

  • 2 CNRS/French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

10At Berel, in the Kazakh part of the Altai Mountains, the joint mission of the Institut d’Archéologie Margulan and the Académie des Sciences and the Mission Archéologique Française en Asie Centrale (MAFAC)2 discovered a large frozen Kurgan. It was found after two seasons of archaeological digs, which took place between 1998 and 2000. Although he had already been searching for his valuable, but various archaeological remains were discovered in the ice, most notably the bodies of thirteen horses fully saddled and harnessed. The analyses, which are currently being carried out, have provided an innovative insight into the fur, fabrics and the sculpted, gilded and tin-plated wooden bridle ornaments. Aspects of both Achaemenid and Scythian art are clearly visible, but DNA and parasites of the human and animal remains are now being analysed. Horses, like skeletons, have been the subject of specific studies that can be characterised as something between an excavation and an autopsy.

11All of these discoveries were made among the Scythian nomads. However, what has become of the sedentary agriculturists from the Xinjiang oases? Who were they and how did they live? In terms of culture, they were “cousins” of the Scythian nomads. By looking at simple examples of their costumes, particularly the women’s headgear, we can quickly and easily understand what they were like.

12Weathered away by wind erosion and destroyed by Barkhan, the Djoumboulak-Koum site, situated right in the middle of Taklimakan, was discovered in 1994. This discovery, owing to a well thought-out and systematic exploration that was carried out on camels with the help of spatial images and GPS, had nothing to do with luck. In the past, in the middle of the 1st millennium BC, farmers settled down in one of the old deltas of the Keriya River. It was proven, to our great surprise, that this 8-hectare site was equipped with a rampart and was part of an impressive irrigation network with its water coming from the ancient river Keriya. Once again, the botanists, zoologists, architects and anthropologists taking part in the mission were lucky to find well-preserved remains, which had been safeguarded by the drought. In the vicinity of the site, a few small cemeteries had preserved the remains of people whose bodies had mummified naturally. They have been the focus of studies at the intersection of archaeology and legal medicine, at the Institut du Patrimoine et de l’Archéologie du Xinjiang and in a hospital in Urumqi. The men were dressed in trousers (sometimes decorated with embroidered braids), tunics, pelisses, and were wearing bonnets, a costume likened to that of the nomadic cavaliers. As for the ladies, who were dressed in skirts (some of which were decorated with bands of tapestry), they wore complex, disproportionately high headgear, like that of the nomadic women of the Altai Mountains.

13Let us move on to the Iron and Bronze Ages. On the Keriya River, there are indications that a population settled down there from the Bronze Age in the 2nd millennium onwards. However, the most important discovery in recent times comes from the Xiaohe burial site (Lop Nur), which was excavated in the last three years by IPAX. Like the other sites, this zone is today totally barren and far away from any sources of water. This cemetery, used throughout the centuries of the 2nd millennium, hints to a very rich and enigmatic culture, with no known parallels. If the organic matter had not been preserved there, however, we would have discovered hardly anything, for nothing apart from the bones (which had indicated both “very poor” tombs and “animal sacrifices”) would have reached us. Whilst these agriculturists and breeders hardly used stone or metal, they did use wood, textiles, fur, skin, feathers, wickerwork, braiding, weaving and colours, both dye and paint. All of the aforementioned details provide us with both a sparkling and very striking image. It will take years to analyse these exceptional finds.

14The archaeology of that which is, intimately linked to environment, is also the archaeology of other cultures, forgotten cultures, which were not integrated into empires that constructed stone monuments like those we know in Mediterranean Europe, Egypt and Peru. However, these ancient cultures, which were well integrated into their natural environment, have dominated Eurasia for millennia, and they are perhaps the ancestors of some of the people who, for example, populated the Americas and repopulated India and Iran. Were the climatic or environmental changes the cause of these “large” migrations or invasions in Central Asia? It is possible, but the mechanisms underlying the element of “environmental determinism” in the evolution of human societies are still not well understood. The fact remains that nowadays, the changes brought about by industrial societies, such as global warming, endanger the rare remains of these fragile and unstable environments that are continually affected by deglaciation and desertification, not to mention both direct and indirect human actions.


1 Centre national de la recherche scientifique/French Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Institut du Patrimoine et de l’Archéologie du Xinjiang.

2 CNRS/French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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