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(Along Belt & Road) Spotlight: Cutting-edge Technologies Boost Archaeological Excavations Along Belt and Road

During excavations along the Belt and Road, various cutting-edge technologies, including remote-sensing, three dimensional (3D) scanning, virtual reality (VR) and unmanned aerial vehicles are being widely used to help archaeologists get a better idea of the lives of people in ancient times. What's more, China's advanced archaeological methods are now going global.


The ancient city of Milan, lying southeast of the Tarim Basin in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, was an important town on the ancient Silk Road in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.).

Once a prosperous oasis, Milan heavily relied on its Tuntian system, which placed garrisons in well-irrigated agricultural colonies so that soldiers in the frontier could cultivate the land during periods of peace.

Wang Xinyuan, a researcher at the Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth (RADI) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said "as a network of trading routes, the ancient Silk Road consists of three sub-systems, namely transportation, defense and supply sub-systems."

The coordination of these three sub-systems was vital to the prosperity of the ancient Silk Road, and Milan's Tuntian system could fulfill all the functions of the three sub-systems, said Wang, who is also the deputy director of UNESCO's International Center on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage.

However, after erosion in the past thousands of years, Milan's Tuntian system has disappeared, making it impossible for archaeologists to study the system with traditional archaeological methods, but remote-sensing technology provides a solution to the problem.

In April 2015, a team from the RADI, with the help of very high resolution satellite imagery and human-computer interactive interpretation technology, revealed the detailed structure of Milan's irrigation system in landscape-scale by means of remote sensing archaeology.

Combined with other spatial information technologies such as a Global Positioning System and Geographic Information System, remote-sensing archaeology has evolved into space archaeology.

As Wang pointed out, archaeological research along the ancient Silk Road is more challenging because of diverse geographical circumstances and the complex situation of relics. Yet space archaeology has great potential to overcome the challenges.

Since 2012, the RADI has used space technologies in archaeological research along the ancient Silk Road and discovered six sites of ancient cities at the same time. Before the application of space technologies, it took archaeologists almost 10 years to discover the ruins of the ancient city called Bazhou.

At the same time, China's space archaeology is going global, from the ancient Silk Road to the new Belt and Road routes. After successfully contributing to the protection of the famed Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, the RADI team will go to Tunisia next year for more international archaeological cooperation.


The ancient Silk Road's network of routes dates back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.), during which the Chinese official and diplomat Zhang Qian was sent West on a diplomatic mission to form an alliance with the ancient nomad kingdom Darouzhi to fight against the Huns.

Archaeologists have been trying to unveil the mystery of Darouzhi and in July, Chinese and Uzbek archaeologists found a large tomb in Southern Uzbekistan during a joint mission, helping to determine the sphere of Darouzhi.

In the past, photographs and sketches were used to record the excavation site, but during this mission, 3D scanning technology was used to precisely record every key node of the excavation.

Wang Jianxin, a professor at China's Northwest University and chief archaeologist of the joint mission, said all the records, from those of the excavation to those of the cultural relics, were all three dimensional. The new technology has completely changed the way how archaeological achievements are understood and analyzed.

In fact, 3D scanning technology can accurately and intuitively record an excavation site and the spatial distribution of relics, providing a treasure trove of data for further analysis.

Meanwhile, unmanned aerial vehicles were also used to record the excavation.

"This was the first time Uzbek archaeologists have seen our advanced archaeological technologies. We have won their recognition and support and this is win-win cooperation," said Wang.


With the combination of 3D scanning technology and VR technology, visitors can enjoy the sights of Tonguz-bash, a military stronghold from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) along the ancient Silk Road.

Excavations since 2013 have ascertained the architectural configuration of the ancient city. The site, stretching 250 meters from south to north and 230 meters from east to west, covers an area of approximately 57,500 square meters, with four tall corner turrets.

However, only ruins of the ancient city are left after thousands of years of sand and wind erosion.

Chen Ling, a researcher at Peking University's School of Archaeology and Museology, said that as opposed to ancient cities built with stones in the West, most remains of China's ancient cities, especially those along the ancient Silk Road, look more like clods, making them hard for ordinary people to appreciate.

"Technical means are required to help visitors know how ancient cities actually looked like," said Chen, who was in charge of the excavation of Tonguz-bash.

Besides 3D scanning and 3D reconstruction, Chen's team accumulated a large amount of video material for VR glasses.

Wearing VR glasses, visitors can enjoy a virtual reconstruction of the ancient city with every detail, including warehouses, residential buildings and guards.

Chen expected that there would be an experience hall which would present historical information and archaeological processes to visitors and give them a comprehensive view of the city, and it could also help raise the public's awareness of the need to conserve relics.

"In essence, making China's archaeology go global is to introduce our archaeological methods developed in the past decades to other countries. Traditionally, Russia is regarded as the top power in archaeology, followed by France and Italy," Chen said.

"But with increasing international cooperation, foreign archaeologists are beginning to realize that many technologies and archaeological methods we employ are far beyond their imagination," he added. (Xinhua)

(Editor: LIU Jia)
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