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Sharing the Past

Chinese archaeologists, along with their Central Asian counterparts, are exploring the Silk Road to unlock some of the greatest mysteries of ancient migrations and kingdoms

By Wang Yan , Ni Wei Updated Feb.1

An excavation site of the ancient city of Akhsikent, Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan, September 2023 (Photo by Ni Wei)

Esteemed archaeologists Professor Bakyt Amanbayeva from Kyrgyzstan and Professor Ahmadali Askarovich Askarov from Uzbekistan have known each other since the 1980s, when both were citizens of the former Soviet Union. Thanks to an archaeological expedition held in late September in Fergana, Uzbekistan in 2023, in which researchers from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China participated, the two old friends were able to hold their customary animated discussions about recent findings in Central Asia.  

On the afternoon of September 24, 2023, the pair and their old friend, archaeologist Isomiddinov Muhammadjon from Uzbekistan, sat beneath a poplar tree in the Fergana countryside to reminisce. They told NewsChina they had been unable to meet for a long time, due to closed borders between the two countries. Professor Wang Jianxin, chief scientist of the Silk Road Archaeological Cooperation Research Center at Northwest University in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, also numbered among the group. He said that joint investigations and academic exchanges conducted in Fergana among the four countries provided a welcome opportunity to reunite these old friends from Central Asia.  

When the team arrived at the heritage site of the city of Akhsikent, also in Fergana, Uzbekistan, Professor Bakyt Amanbayeva spied her old classmate from the former Institute of Archaeology of the Soviet Academy of Sciences Anarbaev Abdulhamid, lead archaeologist at the Akhsikent site. The two greeted each other with a big hug. “We can’t meet often, but we keep in touch regularly,” Amanbayeva said.  

The Fergana Valley, in the border regions where eastern Uzbekistan, northern Tajikistan and southwestern Kyrgyzstan meet, is today one of the most densely populated regions in Central Asia. The ancient city of Akhsikent dates back to the second century BCE and was one of the largest cities of ancient Fergana in the state of Davan, and a major settlement along the Silk Road. The pride of Davan was thoroughbred horses, famed throughout Central Asia. Two of China’s most important historical figures, Han Dynasty (203 BCE-220 CE) explorer Zhang Qian, who died in 114 BCE, and Tang Dynasty (618-907) monk and scholar Xuanzang (602-664) visited the valley. The abundance of archaeological sites attracts archaeologists from all over the world.  

Today, despite the barriers caused by modern national borders, international archaeologists are collaborating to uncover the rich archaeological past of Central Asia.  

Rich Findings 
The many modern boundary disputes between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan resulted in enclaves and boundary villages which exacerbated jurisdiction challenges and caused long-term conflicts. Squabbles over natural resources caused 32 border conflicts between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2014 alone.  

In 2011, a team of researchers led by China’s Northwest University planned to investigate sites in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but found there was no cross-border transportation between the two. It was not until 2018 that the three neighbors opened their borders and granted visa-free access for their citizens. That year, academic cooperation started to flourish. Northwest University had by then established bilateral archaeological cooperation with all three countries. Professor Wang invited archaeologists from all three countries to Xi’an in a bid to increase international communication.  

As an ice-breaking gathering, it allowed researchers from the four countries to discuss opportunities for research, and they decided on the Fergana Valley as first step.  

In 2019, Professor Bakyt Amanbayeva from Kyrgyzstan coordinated a joint research expedition between the four countries to survey Osh State in the Fergana Valley in Kyrgyzstan. There was a second multilateral research expedition program in September 2023, as well as a two-day forum at Fergana State University in Fergana, Uzbekistan.  

The ancient Fergana Valley was a center of silk production. Archaeologists have unearthed rich findings, including Han Dynasty bronze coins and mirrors and silk, proof of the close connections between tribes in Central Asia and Han peoples.  

On September 26, 2023, archaeologists from the four countries arrived at the ancient settlement of Mingtepa, some 30 kilometers from the city of Andijan in Uzbekistan. The 2,000-yearold fortress is surrounded by farmlands. Villagers and a large herd of black goats passed by, stirring up a dust cloud. The government has fenced off the main area of the site and designated it as a cultural preservation site.  

Chinese archaeologists have been working with their Uzbek counterparts at Mingtepa since 2012. Major discoveries include the foundations of the outer city walls and the remains of the inner city’s road system and workshops. The entrance is flanked by two huge mounds with a gap in the middle. According to Liu Tao, associate researcher of the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, it was the fortification’s west gate.  

The Mingtepa site spreads over 270 hectares, four times the area of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Previously thought to have been just a garrison, it was discovered that it was also a city, the largest in the Fergana Valley at the time.  

Some scholars speculate that Mingtepa might be the famous Ershi, capital of the ancient state of Davan, where the Fergana horses were bred. However, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have all claimed they are home to ancient Ershi.  

“The academic circle has yet to reach a consensus on where Ershi really was. Unless we can sit down together to discuss it, we can only talk from a single perspective,” Wang Jianxin told NewsChina.  

During the recent joint field trip, despite scholars from different countries speaking different languages, as the reporter observed, they all diligently discussed even trivial details of findings with the help of translators.  

International Digs
Wang, 70, first visited Central Asia over a decade ago, just as a tourist. At that time, no Chinese archeological team had ever conducted an international dig. In the years since, he has visited most of the major sites in the region, in pursuit of his passion – proof of the fate of a loose nomadic tribe known as the Yuezhi, who lived in northwest China in the first millennium BCE.  

The first recorded mentions of the Yuezhi come in the Records of the Grand Historian by Han historian Sima Qian, written around the late 2nd century BCE, and the Book of Han, finished in the year 111. The accounts place the Yuezhi around the Hexi Corridor, in today’s northwestern Gansu Province.  

In the 2nd century BCE, the Yuezhi were attacked and defeated by a nomadic tribe called the Xiongnu, living in what is roughly Mongolia today, and considered to be the forebears of the Mongolian people. Initially the stronger group, in 176 BCE the Yuezhi suffered a huge defeat at the hands of the Xiongnu. The survivors split into two groups and set off on a westward migration. The larger group – the Greater Yuezhi – went to Central Asia, and the Lesser Yuezhi trekked southwest to the edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Their arrival in all areas displaced existing tribes, especially in Central Asia, and changed the course of history.  

In 138 BCE, the seventh Han Emperor Wudi (156 BCE–86 BCE) dispatched envoy Zhang Qian to search for the Greater Yuezhi in the west, hoping to unite with them against the Xiongnu. Returning to the Han capital of Chang An (now Xi’an) in 126 BCE, he reported that the Yuezhi were no longer interested in fighting the Xiongnu. Yet, his mission was not a failure. He went as far as Bactria, which had been part of the ancient Persian empire, located in northern Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan. He brought back information on the new lands, and the impact of his trip echoed down the ages, initiating the emergence and formation of the Silk Road from China to the Mediterranean region.  

The Greater Yuezhi settled in Central Asia and regained their strength, displacing already settled tribes. They continued to communicate with the Han. While 17 bamboo slips excavated in the 1990s from the Xuanquanzhi Ruins, an ancient posthouse in Gansu Province, mentioned the Greater Yuezhi, not much hard evidence of them or the route of the Greater Yuezhi Westward Migration has ever been found.  

Serious research on the Greater Yuezhi in Central Asia only began in earnest in the last 50 years, at first by researchers from Europe, the US and Japan. Wang Jianxin, who first heard about the Yuezhi from visiting Japanese archaeologist Takayasu Higuchi in 1991, has made it his life’s work to uncover the mystery, first by tracing their route in western China, then expanding the search to Central Asia.  

The Tianshan Mountains cross the Eurasian continent, spanning China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan from east to west. More than two-thirds are in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Eastern Tianshan, with the Western Tianshan range extending across Central Asian countries.  

In the 2000s, Wang concentrated on investigating western China, pioneering research into ancient nomadic tribes, and discovering hundreds of settlement sites, upending the notion that nomadic tribes were always on the move.  

After the China-led Belt and Road Initiative kicked off in 2013, with an announcement by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Kazakhstan, funding for international digs became available to Wang. By the end of 2013, Wang was cooperating with the Institute of Archaeology at Uzbekistan’s Academy of Sciences and had established a joint Sino-Uzbek team to investigate sites in the Western Tianshan.  

In 2015, his team finally found an ancient site they concluded belonged to the Kangju some 20 kilometers southwest of Samarkand in Uzbekistan. There they found six tombs and inhabited sites believed to belong to the nomadic Kangju tribe, regarded as the second-most important after the Yuezhi. The discovery, which was a sensation among international researchers, allowed archaeologists to shift the area of research to the south as the Kangju were thought to have lived north of the Yuezhi.  

At the end of 2016, the Central Asian Archaeological Team were researching the Surkhan Darya area, the most southerly part of Uzbekistan. On the last day, Liang Yun, the excavation leader and a professor at Northwest University, noticed a gray ashy soil layer in the riverbed. Using his trowel, he sifted the soil, unearthing a human bone. It belonged to an ancient tomb. They had found the Rabat site in Boysun city, Uzbekistan.  

The Rabat site is located in the northern Bactria area between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and the Greater Yuezhi were the dominant tribe there. The lands were formerly the Greco-Bactria Kingdom after Alexander the Great conquered it in 329 BCE.  

Due to the work conducted by the Central Asian archaeological team, the ancient Central Asian territories that Zhang Qian visited were found and confirmed. Apart from these archaeological achievements, Chinese archaeologists have set up cooperative ties with their counterparts in Central Asian countries. The building up of mutual trust between and among the various sides in Central Asia promote joint archaeological efforts in a wider platform.  

The site of the west gate of the ancient city of Mingtepa in Uzbekistan discovered by a joint SinoUzbek archaeology team in 2012 (Photo by Ni Wei)

Archaeologist Professor Bakyt Amanbayeva debates with his friend Professor Ahmadali Askarovich Askarov at Fargona Davlat University, Uzbekistan, September 2023 (Photo by Ni Wei)

Mukhtarova Gulmira Railovna, director of the Issyk State Historical and Cultural ReserveMuseum of Kazakhstan, stands in front of the reconstructed Issyk Golden Statue discovered at an ancient tomb in Kazakhstan in 1970 (Photo by Ni Wei)

What to Leave Behind 
According to Mukhtarova Gulmira Railovna, director of the Issyk State Historical and Cultural Reserve-Museum of Kazakhstan, an archaeological cooperation project between Kazakhstan and China has been going on at an excavation site called Rahat at the northern foot of the Tianshan Mountains in Kazakhstan for seven years. Relics from the ancient site along the Silk Road date back from 2,400 to 1,400 years ago. “When the Chinese archaeologists find something, they say in Russian, ‘stone, stone!’ We can speak some simple Chinese too,” Railovna said, emphasizing that what is important is mutual reference of working methods and perspectives. “For example, Chinese archaeologists attach great importance to the strata, and they identified nine cultural layers at the Rahat site. Stratigraphy, a commonly adopted method in Chinese archaeology, has played an important role at Rahat so far,” Railovna said.  

While Central Asia has an abundance of archaeological resources, researchers are in short supply. According to Amanbayeva, there are only 20 archaeologists in Kyrgyzstan, and only in the capital city of Bishkek can one major in archaeology at university. This is why so much research has been conducted by foreign archaeologists. France, Britain, Japan, South Korea, Russia and more have sent teams. In the Soviet Union period, archaeology in Central Asia was dominated by institutions from Moscow.  

Amanbayeva said Russia’s interest in Central Asian archaeology has dwindled. “We used to have close contact with Russian archaeologists, but then suddenly the contact stopped since they could not get funding. Instead, funding and projects from our country have increased significantly,” she said. While cooperating with excavations in Central Asia, China is supporting the training of archaeologists.  

Yusufov Bakhodir, 35, from Uzbekistan, is now a PhD candidate in archaeology at Northwestern University in Xi’an. According to Wang Jianxin, China’s archaeological cooperation is not about what to take away, but what to leave behind. “From the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century, China suffered looting by foreign countries. Many other countries in Central Asia had similar experiences. When these countries work together in archaeological research, we will never forget the history. Our primary principle during the joint archaeological program is to respect the historical and cultural heritage of the country in which we conduct research,” Wang said. “Our work must be based on the source country itself, and our purpose is to fulfill academic studies based on sharing rather than robbing or disputing.”  

Amanbayeva said Chinese archaeologists are diligent and professional. “Working with our Chinese counterparts is very simple, and they get to the heart of what we care about. We build up friendly relationships quickly,” she said.  

Over the past 10 years, China has conducted exchanges and cooperation with countries along the Belt and Road routes in the field of cultural relics, carried out 44 joint archaeological projects with 24 countries including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates, and 11 protection and restoration of historic sites projects in six countries, including Uzbekistan and Cambodia.  

Since 2023, Wang’s team has started seeking archaeological cooperation with Turkmenistan and Iran, and he expects they can proceed with excavations in the two countries in 2024. Cooperation areas and projects with Iran will focus on the Silk Road heritage and archaeology in northeast Iran, in a program initially lasting three years. “We are also observing the security situation in Afghanistan, which is in the Bactria region,” Wang said.  

The exploration of the Greater Yuezhi continues. In summer 2023, Wang carried out research in Mongolia. In Yiwu, Xinjiang, an archaeological team from Northwest University found a large Yuezhi tomb, which Wang believes could be the first tomb of a Yuezhi ruler ever to be discovered.