IDP News Issue No. 39
Idris Abdurusul and Anwar Abulkasim
In 2008, as part of the IDP collaboration, Xinjiang Autonomous Archaeological Institute, with the approval of the Cultural Relics Bureau of the People’s Republic of China and the cooperation of the British Library, started in-situ investigations of the ancient ruins of the Southern Taklamakan, including Endere, Rawak and Miran. In order to enable the smooth continuation of this project, and given the extensive documentation by Stein on ruins of the Southern Taklamakan, the Sino-British team continued their in-situ investigations at Niya and Karadong from 7th to 23rd November, 2011. By referring to Stein’s photographs and other documentation from over a century ago, the team was able to see that, although the whole site was fundamentally preserved, the effects of the environment were evident – especially erosion caused by the wind and sand. The ruins of Niya are situated in Niya Township, Minfeng County, Khotan Prefecture, Xinjiang on an old delta of the Niya River, deep in the Taklamakan Desert. The site was mapped by Stein during four visits in the last century. Between 1991–97, the Sino-Japanese Niya Investigative Team set the northern and eastern limits to 37° 58’ 45.3” and 82° 43’ 13.5”, with the stupa at its centre. The various remains are distributed in groups throughout the ancient river delta zone, extending 30 km from north to south and about 5 km from east to west. The southern border is over 100 km from the present-day town of Minfeng and 28 km from the oasis at the end of the Niya River today. The site was originally discovered in 1901, over a century ago. Since then archaeologists have discovered a great number of documents in Gāndhārī-Prakrit written in the Kharoṣṭhī script as well as some in Chinese. Other finds include money, silk, artefacts and finely carved furniture and building structures. The archaeological investigations have revealed over a hundred remains including houses of different sizes, a Buddhist temple, a stupa, cultivated areas, orchards, roads, handicraft areas, graveyards, irrigation systems, and walls. These were given identifiers with the form N.I., N.II. etc by Stein, and 95NMIgraveyard, by the Sino-Japanese team.
Within this ribbon of settlements running north to south, the ruins are found scattered in nineteen clusters, each comprising houses, irrigation canals, animal pens, orchards, roads, forest belt and sand defences. The clusters can be considered settlements or villages. The isolated and barren environment of this desert oasis had a profound influence on the structure of the villages and the form and style of all the remains but, in particular, of the houses. Their design, layout and construction all conform to the desert conditions and have distinct characteristics.1 The Niya ruins comprise the largest extant settlement on the southern Silk Road in the Taklamakan. But apart from the excavated ruins, there are many still covered by the sand and yet to be exposed and excavated. They will yield important resources for the study of oasis settlements. At the same time, because Niya was on a major hub of the Southern Silk Road and thus a place for cultural exchanges from east and west, the excavated documents make clear that this was a place of interactions between Chinese, Indian, Graeco-Roman and early Persian cultures. The good condition of the ruins, their rich cultural connotations, and their extent make them rare worldwide. Research on human culture in barren oasis settlements and their relationship to changes in the environmental circumstances, and on east-west cultural interactions on the history of Central Asian culture, have been greatly enhanced as a result of the investigations at Niya. The work of the 2011 team in carrying out in-situ verification of the changes over the past century, supplementing and improving the existing records, and obtaining rare first-hand data, will prove an important resource for the study and protection of the ancient Silk Road.
House-building in Ancient Niya
In November 2011, a team from IDP and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology (XJIA) visited the archaeological site of Niya, an ancient settlement deep in the Taklamakan desert only accessible by specialist sand vehicles. In the first to third centuries Niya was a flourishing oasis kingdom of farmsteads extending up the Niya River, producing grain, wine and fruits such as apricots, plums and pomegranates. The team spent several days documenting the extensive remains; the site is over 30 km long and 5 km wide and contains over one hundred separate sites, some discovered by Marc Aurel Stein in the early part of the twentieth century and more by a Sino-Japanese team throughout the 1990s. Apart from one clay brick-built stupa all the sites we examined consisted of the remains of buildings with a wooden structure and many features in common.
Apart from one clay brick-built stupa all the sites we examined consisted of the remains of buildings with a wooden structure and many features in common. The materials used to build at Niya were inevitably dictated by the environment, a desert region with limited water and no nearby sources of stone. The main material used for the structure of the building was timber from poplar trees. The poplar tree grows fast and to a good height. It has a deep invasive root system so can tolerate periods of drought and flourishes in clay and sandy soil. A wild black poplar (populus nigra, known locally as toghrak) still grows plentifully in this region in settled areas and forests of dead toghrak from the Niya-period can still be seen to this day (Fig. 1). The trunk and branches of the toghrak are twisted and knotty and far from ideal for building work. Stein observed that at Karadong, the second site visited during the field trip, the structures of the ruined quadrangle all seemed to be constructed from toghrak and he concluded that a more suitable species was not cultivated here. However, at Niya the dwellings were mostly constructed using the cultivated white poplar (populas alba, known as terek). Fallen white poplar were observed to the southeast of site N.V. up to 10 m long with a diameter of 50 cm. This type of tree, being fast-growing, tall and strong, is still widely used today in the Taklamakan and Gobi oases. It is especially effective as a wind break for cultivated fields and can be seen being used to protect cotton fields around Dunhuang. The best quality terek were used for the base or foundations of the house. More usual techniques were not suitable for the sandy ground which is very prone to shifting and erosion. As Stein observed: ‘Massive squared beams of White Poplar or terek wood, usually extended below several rooms, and in some instances exceeding 40 ft in length, formed a kind of foundation; their thickness, which varied from 6 to 10 inches according to the size and importance of the walls they supported.’ (Ancient Khotan, p.317). The size and weight of the timbers increased the contact area between the foundations and the ground making the building more stable. The huge foundation beams can be seen at site N.II. protruding into the air due to erosion (Fig. 2). The corners of the foundation beams were joined together using a double-notched joint (Fig. 3). The Niya house builders seem to have only used a partial notch on the underside beam although it is possible the end section of the beam has been lost due to the erosion of the wood. Double-notched joints are commonly used in structures made with large timbers. The double notch prevents movement in either direction and also allows adjustment to maintain a uniform line when timbers are not all exactly the same size. This would have served the house builders of Niya well as although the foundation beams are very skillfully cut — something that was frequently noted by Stein and his workmen during excavations — they did not have mechanical cutting equipment to produce uniform materials. The corner uprights that form the walls serve two purposes: they create the skeleton wall structure but also further strengthen the corner joints of the foundations. A mortise and tenon joint is used to secure these uprights. Mortise and tenon joints are still commonly used in frame construction today as they are versatile, easily concealed and efficient at holding a frame together. There are many different types of this joint; the type used for the construction of the wall uprights is a through mortise and tenon, where the mortise hole goes completely through the timber member. The uprights strengthen the foundations by the mortise hole being cut through the top of the double notch joint and when the tenon is passed through the mortise it serves as a locking pin for the joint below (Fig. 4). To complete the structure of the wall smaller intermediary uprights about 7 cm square were placed at distances of about 30 cm apart (Fig. 5). The corner uprights and the smaller intermediary uprights were joined along the top by heavy beams similar in size to the foundation beams. The sites at which the top beams had survived were few although good examples of this were seen at N.VIII. and N.XII. (Fig. 5). The corner uprights were fixed to the top beam in the same way as they were fixed at the bottom to the foundation beams, forming a box shape. The intermediary uprights were also fixed with a mortise and tenon joint but, as these posts were not as large as the corner uprights, a stub mortise and tenon was used, which is where the mortise hole is only cut part of the way into the timber. If a through mortise and tenon had been used here the large foundation and top beams would have been weakened by the mortise holes. Two methods of strengthening the wall structure were observed. The first was to incorporate a horizontal beam running between the two corner uprights (Fig. 5). This increased the stability of the wall and shortened the lengths of the intermediary uprights thus reducing the amount of movement over time, which would have affected the integrity of the wall. This horizontal beam was fixed into a groove running the length of the corner upright and supported by the intermediary uprights that were stub mortised and tenoned into its underside. The second method, seen at N.III., is a diagonal member inserted into the groove in the corner upright and stub mortised and tenoned in the foundation beam (Fig. 6). Short intermediary uprights have been added to allow the fixing of the wall covering. The wall covering was made using two different methods, firstly a system of thin tamarisk branches woven into diagonal matting (Fig. 7). Stein felt that the diagonal matting supplied a stronger core to the walls than the second method, which was the use of reeds laid in horizontal layers (Fig. 8). The reeds or diagonal matting were tied onto the uprights with twine. Both methods were seen in the sites of Niya although the diagonal matting is more common with reeds being employed in some of the earlier ruins, N.III., N.IV. and N.V. Stein also observed while excavating N.III. that diagonal matting was used up to a height of 6 ft (c.2 m) with reeds used above this. Once in place the core of the wall was covered with what Stein described as a ‘hard white plaster’ making the wall structure about 7 in (12 cm) thick (Fig. 9). Very few of these ancient dwellings have surviving roofs. When Stein was excavating he found a few, including one on the gate house at the Karadong quadrangle. This has subsequently been lost — evidence of a fire was visible during our visit. But much can be learned by studying the modern-day houses in settlements local to the desert sites. Examples of construction methods identical to the ancient dwellings in Niya can be observed in Kapak-astan and Daheyan. In Daheyan, a village about 25 km to the southeast of Karadong, there was an opportunity to study the roof structure in the house of Matsaydi Abla. The roof consisted of a series of large beams about 15 cm square that were positioned about 40 cm apart centre line to centre line (Fig. 10). The ends of these beams were secured into the beam that formed the top of the wall. The beams were visible from the exterior protruding from the wall by about 40 cm. The joint seemed to be a double-notched joint as seen in the foundations at Niya. Inside the house there were two large beams of a similar size running at 90 degrees to the roof beams. These offered further support to the roof and so allowed a larger room size. These two support beams were in turn supported by a pillar at their centre point which had a carved wooden bracket where the beam and pillar joined: this bracket resembled many excavated from Niya (Fig. 11). The roof covering was reed matting woven in the same way as the tamarisk matting seen in the walls of the Niya dwellings. This matting was supported between the roof beams by a series of roughly cut noggins about 10 cm apart. A layer of plaster had been applied on top of the matting. This completes the basic construction of the Niya dwellings. Windows were added but they were very small due to the need to keep the houses cool during the very hot summer and warm during the freezing winter. Buildings increased in complexity with their importance: many had intricate carvings and complex room layouts demonstrating further the advanced carpentry skills of the contemporary builders, skills that are still used to the present day. Rachel Roberts is Studio Manager and Photographer at IDP. She led the video team at Niya. She is also a professional carpenter.