Postcard from Xinjiang: Dr Peter Jia

2 November 2011

Dr Peter Jia in Xinjiang, north-west China.
Dr Peter Jia in Xinjiang, north-west China.

Sandstorms, wolves, hail, altitude sickness and accommodation in a Mongolian yurt were all part of a recent field trip to China for University of Sydney archaeologist Dr Peter Jia, during which he helped make two important discoveries.

Peter, from the University's China Studies Centre, was travelling in Xinjiang in remote north-west China and spent two months alongside the Chinese archaeologists he collaborates with.

In recent years there has been increasing Chinese interest in the contributions of non-Chinese to Chinese civilisation and the team's discovery of settlement ruins attracted Chinese media from across the country to visit the site. Peter writes about his experiences here.

The expedition, funded by the China Studies Centre, was to a dry grassland west of the Gobi desert, about 2300 metres above sea level. This is where the team made the major discovery of a prehistoric site containing cemeteries and settlement ruins.

This is an important and exciting find for several reasons. It is a site of the Androvono people who crossed Eurasia and came into contact with the Chinese, 4000 years ago. It had previously been thought that this culture became nomadic and highly mobile, but the evidence of the ruins instead suggests a more sedentary way of life. The ruins are large, sometimes 400 square metres for a single house, well-planned and built with stone slabs or natural rocks.

Our second thrill of the trip was the discovery at the burial site of the skeleton of a young girl on the surface of a stone coffin. Her left hand had been removed and it is likely she had been sacrificed, in order to accompany the master of her household into death.

The outcome of this murder mystery will not be known until the bodies are fully analysed, including carbon dating, which will be done in the United Kingdom.

However, the joy of modern archaeology is that a major find such as this site often yields material for multidisciplinary research. The botanical material at the site - pollen, phytolith, starch, and large seeds - will be examined not only for an insight into ancient agricultural and dietary practices, but also to shed light on modern Chinese herbal medicine.

Dr Peter Jia (centre) and his colleagues made two important discoveries at the dig.
Dr Peter Jia (centre) and his colleagues made two important discoveries at the dig.

Earlier this year I started to work with colleagues based in the University's Faculty of Pharmacy, as well as botanists and pharmacists based in China, on the prehistoric use of Chinese medicinal plants. We hope our research, also funded by the China Studies Centre with support from the Australian Research Council, will lead to a reference database and a scientific test that will help in the accurate identification of genuinely traditional Chinese medicines and the detection of modern fakes.

So on this trip I spent time in the mountains of northern Tianshan gathering medicinal herbs, using the traditional knowledge of local people. Similarly our excavation trip relied on local people from many backgrounds including Mongolian, Kazakh, Han and Uygur.

Another essential contribution of this trip was that our archaeological discoveries breathed new life into the local tourism and conservation industry. We worked closely with the local council to create a complete heritage management plan, including how to protect and reconstruct the site, how to open the site responsibly to tourism, and how to use the revenue generated to help with the preservation of these amazing prehistoric sites. We hope that a museum will eventually be created on the site.

It was a privilege to have access to this remote region and to work with my colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the local people, sharing the same conditions.

That includes rushing for cover if a sandstorm whips up and, if you are excavating, trying to protect both yourself and the exposed site from the sand and small rocks it carries.

The sometimes freezing cold and the altitude sickness can be challenging but are all part of what is still essential, and exciting for an archaeologist, which is doing fieldwork.

Fortunately the wolves kept their distance and it was wonderful to be awake at sunrise, see the ice-capped mountains shining and play spot the wolf!

During the Mid-Autumn Festival, we shared the customary moon-cakes and took part in a bonfire celebration in accordance with local Mongolian customs. We were singing, dancing and sharing drinks together in the spirit of the traditional saying 'if you are not drunk you cannot return home'.

Now that I am home I look forward to many more trips to China - and to more valuable discoveries.

The China Studies Centre fieldwork for this trip is under the supervision of Associate Professor Alison Betts, the convenor of Archaeology and Ancient History at the Centre.

Nighttime at the site of the ruins.
Nighttime at the site of the ruins.

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Verity Leatherdale, 9351 4312, 0419 278 715,