Ancient Chinese city of Loulan

Scientists to map out vast ancient Chinese city of Loulan

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A team of Chinese scientists have plans to undertake a five year, government sponsored project to fully map out the kingdom of Loulan, and to solve the mystery of its sudden abandonment, according to a news report in English China News Service. Loulan was an ancient city based around an important oasis city along the Silk Road on the north-eastern edge of the Lop Desert, and is well-known as the location of the Tarim mummies.

Bordering the Chinese heartland, the Kingdom of Loulan, also known in historical records as Shanshan, became the first stop for merchant caravans trading between China and Central Asia, and prospered from the trade. References to this desert country are available in official historical records in travel records of Buddhist monks and in Tang Dynasty poetry.

The Han Chinese forces conquered it in 108 BC for its strategic location, and turned it into a puppet state, and a military colony was later established and maintained there. However, the flourishing city of Loulan was curiously abandoned in the 3rd century the by the time of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) it had fallen into oblivion and never mentioned again until its rediscovery in the 20th century, when archaeologists uncovered the ruins of administrative buildings, residential dwellings, and Buddhist pagodas, as well as numerous artifacts.

Reconstruction of the Kingdom of Loulan

Reconstruction of the Kingdom of Loulan in its golden days. Image source.

Many hypotheses have been put forward to explain its abandonment, including climatic or environmental changes, an epidemic, a war of conquest, or the opening of the northern route of the Silk Road which diverted most of the trade traffic away from Loulan.

Further debates centre on which race(s) the Loulan inhabitants belong to. At the beginning of the 20th century, European explorers recounted their discoveries of a group of well-preserved bodies in their search for antiquities around Loulan, in the Tarim Basin of Central Asia. Since then, more than two hundred mummies have been found that date from 1800 to 100 BC.  Their discovery caused a huge stir in China due to their racial identity. The Tarim mummies have light-coloured hair and distinctly Caucasian facial features, which gives credence to the claims of the local peoples, the Uyghur, who look more European than Asia, that they are the descendants of the original inhabitants of the area and not later arrivals, as Chinese history claims.

Loulan Beauty

The ‘Loulan Beauty’, a 3,800-year-old mummy found in Loulan.

The plans to map out the ancient kingdom of Loulan is the most comprehensive and the first government-sponsored scientific research in the region, with more than $1.6 million being allocated to the investigation. Scientists are hopeful that great discoveries will be made, as satellite imagery shows traces of many potential villages, roads, gateways, farmland and even irrigation channels.  Artifacts already excavated from Loulan are many and diverse, and include Han Dynasty coins, lacquer ware, bronze mirrors, and woolen fabrics in Greek and Roman styles.

"With satellite technology and field work, we hope to recreate a complete picture of the kingdom of Loulan," said Qin Xiaoguang, head scientist of the five-year program. "If we can restore the kingdom on the map, archaeologists will get a better understanding of human development in the region… Getting better acquainted with the Lop Nor region can help us further understand the relation between climate change and the ancient culture's heyday and death.”

Featured image: Ruins of the city of Loulan. Photo source: The Silk Road China

By April Holloway

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