Were the oasis-cities of the southern branch of the Silk Road in Tarim Basin, China, dispersed urban complexes?

Main Article Content

Kasper Hanus


This article reinterprets the urban pattern of the oases of southern Tarim Basin, which flourished in the first half of the first millennium C.E. using the dispersed urban complexes framework. Disperse urban centre, also known as a low-density urban complex, is a site that had an urban function, but its morphology was much different from compact cities of, for example, China or mediaeval Europe. Low-density urban complexes, like Tikal in Mesoamerica or Angkor in South-East Asia, despite their distinct urban functions, had the cityscape consisting of intermingled monumental agriculture, water management features and agricultural field. Thus, the oasis-cities of southern Tarim Basin were different from compact urban centres of neighbouring China and western Central Asia and showed some similarities to complexes like Tikal and Angkor. This article evaluates if those sites can be associated with low-density urbanism. Three selected sites, 尼雅 [Niya], 米兰 [Miran] and 樓蘭 [Loulan], have been evaluated for the presence of characteristic associated with low-density urbanism: dispersed monumental architecture, large scale anthropogenic landscapes modifications, and pattern of alternating housing clusters and agricultural fields. This can affect our understating of both the understanding of urbanism in the region and low-density urbanism on the global scale.


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details

Jak cytować
Hanus , K. (2021). Were the oasis-cities of the southern branch of the Silk Road in Tarim Basin, China, dispersed urban complexes?. Folia Praehistorica Posnaniensia, 26, 89-121. https://doi.org/10.14746/fpp.2021.26.04


  1. Atwood, C., 1991, Life in Third-fourth Century Cadh'ota: A survey of information gathered from the Prakrit documents found north of Minfeng (Niyä). Central Asiatic Journal, 35(3/4), 161–199.
  2. Bertrand, A., 2012, Water Management in Jingjue 精絕 Kingdom: The Transfer of a Water Tank System from Gandhara to Southern Xinjiang in the Third and Fourth Centuries C. E. Sino-Platonic Papers, 223, 1–84.
  3. Canuto, M. A., Estrada-Belli, F., Garrison, T. G., Houston, S. D., Acuña, M. J., Kováč, M., Chatelain, D., 2018 Ancient lowland Maya complexity as revealed by airborne laser scanning of northern Guatemala. Science, 361(6409), eaau0137.
  4. Chen, G., 1984, Xinjiang Milan gucheng guangai qudao jiqi xiangguan de yixie wenti (The ancient irrigation canals of the Milan City in Xinjiang and some related questions). Kaogu Yu Wenwu, 6, 91–102.
  5. Childe, V. G., 1950, The Urban Revolution. Town Planning Review, 21, 3–17.
  6. Cleary, M. N., 2013, Khorezmian Walled Sites of the Seventh Century Bc – Fourth Century Ad: Urban Settlements? Elite Strongholds? Mobile Centres? Iran, 51(1), 71–100.
  7. Cowgill, G. L., 2004, Origins and development of urbanism: archaeological perspectives. Annual Review of Anthropology, 33, 525–549.
  8. Debaine-Francfort, C., Idriss, A., Binghua, W., 1994. Agriculture irriguée et art bouddhique ancien au cœur du Taklamakan (Karadong, Xinjiang, II e–IV e siècles). Arts asiatiques, 34–52.
  9. Di Cosmo, N., 2000, Ancient city-states of the Tarim Basin. In M. H. Hansen (ed.), A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures (p. 393–407). Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters.
  10. Evans, D., 2016, Airborne laser scanning as a method for exploring long-term socio-ecological dynamics in Cambodia. Journal of Archaeological Science, 74, 164–175.
  11. Evans, D., Pottier, C., Fletcher, R., Hensley, S., Tapley, I., Milne, A., Barbetti, M., 2007, A comprehensive archaeological map of the world's largest preindustrial settlement complex at Angkor, Cambodia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(36), 14277–14282.
  12. Evans, D. H., Fletcher, R. J., Pottier, C., Chevance, J. B., Soutif, D., Tan, B. S., Cromarty, C., 2013, Uncovering archaeological landscapes at Angkor using lidar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(31), 12595–12600.
  13. Fernández-Götz, M., Krausse, D. (eds), 2016, Eurasia at the Dawn of History: Urbanisation and Social Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  14. Fletcher, R., 2007, The limits of settlement growth: A theoretical outline. Cambridge: Cleary, M. N.
  15. Fletcher, R.,2013, Khorezmian Walled Sites of the Seventh Century Bc – Fourth Century Ad: Urban Settlements? Elite Strongholds? Mobile Centres? Iran, 51(1), 71–100.
  16. Fletcher, R., 2009, Low-Density, Agrarian-Based Urbanism: A Comparative View. Insights, 2(4), 2–19.
  17. Fletcher, R., 2012, Low-density, agrarian-based urbanism: scale, power, and ecology. In Michael E Smith (ed.), The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies (p. 285–320). New York, U.S.A.: Cambridge University Press.
  18. Fletcher, R., Penny, D., Evans, D., Pottier, C., Barbetti, M., Kummu, M., Lustig, T., 2008, The water management network of Angkor, Cambodia. Antiquity, 82, 658–670.
  19. Fournet, T., 2001, Architecture traditionnelle et activités domestiques In C. Debaine-Francfort, A. Idriss (eds), Keriya, mémoires d'un fleuve : Archéologie et civilisation des oasis du Taklamakan (p. 34–47). Paris: Findakly.
  20. Garrison, T. G., Houston, S., Firpi, O. A., 2019, Recentering the rural: Lidar and articulated landscapes among the Maya. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 53, 133–146.
  21. Gaubatz, P. R., 1996, Beyond the Great Wall: Urban form and transformation on the Chinese frontiers. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  22. Graham, E., Isendahl, C., 2018, Neotropical Cities as Agro-Urban Landscapes: Revisiting'Low-Density, Agrarian-Based Urbanism'. In A. Ekblom, C. Isendahl, K.-J. Lindholm (eds), The resilience of heritage : cultivating a future of the past : essays in honour of Professor Paul J.J. Sinclair (p. 165–180). Uppsala: Uppsala University Press.
  23. Guang-Da, Z., 1996, The city-states of the Tarim Basin. History of the Civilisations of Central Asia, 3, 282–297.
  24. Hansen, G., Ashby, S. P., Baug I., 2008, Everyday products in the Middle Ages. Crafts, consumption and the individual in northern Europe c. AD 800–1600: an introduction. In G. Hansen, S. P. Ashby, I. Baug (eds), Everyday products in the Middle Ages. Crafts, consumption and the individual in northern Europe c. AD 800-1600 (p. 1–11). Oxford: Oxbow Books.
  25. Hansen, V., 2012, The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford University Press.
  26. Hanus, K., 2020, The water, the sand and the folk: understanding the role of water in the social life of the oasis-cities of Shan Shan Kingdom. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Adam Mickiewicz University.
  27. Hanus, K., Kostyrko M., Mardas, J., 2016, Kosmiczna pomoc. Zastosowanie danych satelitarnych w rozpoznaniu i zarządzaniu dziedzictwem archeologicznym. Maska. Magazyn Antropologiczno-Społeczno-Kulturowy, 45–60.
  28. Hiebert, F. T., 1992, The oasis and city of Merv (Turkmenistan). Archeologie Islamique, 3, 111–127.
  29. Isendahl, C., 2012, Agro-urban landscapes: the example of Maya lowland cities. Antiquity, 86(334), 1112–1125.
  30. Isendahl, C., Smith, M. E., 2013, Sustainable agrarian urbanism: The low-density cities of the Mayas and Aztecs. Cities, 31, 132–143.
  31. Jing. A., 景爱., 1999, 沙漠考古通论. Beijing: 紫禁城出版社.
  32. Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C., 1994, The Bronze Age" khanates" of Central Asia. Antiquity, 68(259), 398.
  33. Legge, J., 1991, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
  34. Li, Y., Storozum, M. J., Wang, X., G.u. asaponarao., W., 2017, Early irrigation and agropastoralism at Mohuchahangoukou (M.G.K.), Xinjiang, China. Archaeological Research in Asia, 12, 23–32.
  35. Luo., L., Wang, X., Liu., J., Guo., H., Lasponara, R., Ji, W., Liu, C., 2017, Uncovering the ancient canal-based tuntian agricultural landscape at China's northwestern frontiers. Journal of Cultural Heritage, 23, 79–88.
  36. Lucero, L., Fletcher, R., Coningham, R., 2015, From 'collapse' to urban diaspora: the transformation of low-density, dispersed agrarian urbanism. Antiquity, 89(347), 1139–1154.
  37. M.a., Y., Wang, B., 1994, The culture of the Xinjiang region. History of civilisations of Central Asia, 2, 209–225.
  38. Mallory, J. P., 2010, Bronze age languages of the Tarim basin. Expedition: The magazine of the University of Pennsylvania, 52, 44–53.
  39. Marcus, J., 1983, On the nature of the Mesoamerican city. In E. Z. Vogt, R. M. Leventhal (eds), Prehistoric settlement patterns: Essays in honor of Gordon R. Willey (p. 195–242). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  40. Marcus, J., Sabloff, J. A., 2008, The Ancient City: New Perspectives on Urbanism in the Old and New World. Santa Fe, NM: A School for Advanced Research Resident Scholar Book.
  41. Miksic, J. N., 2000, Heterogenetic cities in premodern Southeast Asia. World Archaeology, 32(1), 106–120.
  42. Moore, T., 2017, Beyond Iron Age' towns': Examining oppida as examples of low-density urbanism. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 36(3), 287–305.
  43. Nimick, T. G., 2005, The Selection of Local Officials Through Recommendations In Fifteenth-century China. T'oung Pao, 91(1), 125–182.
  44. Padwa, M. E., 2007, An archaic fabric: Culture and landscape in an early Inner Asian oasis (3 rd – 4 th century C.E. Niya). Harward: Unpublished PhD dissertation, Harvard University.
  45. Renfrew, C., 2008, The city through time and space: transformations of centrality. In J. Marcus, J. A. Sabloff (eds), The Ancient City: New Perspectives on Urbanism in the Old and New World (p. 29–52). Santa Fe, NM: A School for Advanced Research Resident Scholar Book.
  46. Revell, L., 1999, Constructing Romanitas: Roman Public Architecture and the Archaeology of Practice. Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal, 9, 52–58.
  47. Rhie, M. M., 1999, Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia: Later Han, three kingdoms and Western Chin in China and Bactria to Shan-shan in Central Asia, vol. 1. Leiden: Brill.
  48. Sinclair, P., Isendahl, C., Barthel, S., 2016, Beyond rhetoric: Towards a framework for an applied historical ecology of urban planning. In C. Isendahl, D. Stump (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Historical Ecology and Applied Archaeology. Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press.
  49. Sino-Japanese Joint Research of the Niya Site, 1999, 中日共同尼雅遺跡学術調考 察隊 In 中日共同尼雅遺跡学術调查报告 书: Qrumqi/Kyoto.
  50. Smith, M. E., 2009, V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: a historical perspective on a revolution in urban studies. Town Planning Review, 80(1), 3–29.
  51. Smith, M. E., 2016, How can archaeologists identify early cities? Definitions, types, and attributes. In M. Fernández-Götz, D. Krausse (eds), Eurasia at the Dawn of History Urbanization and Social Change (p. 153–168). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  52. Smith, M. L., 2003, The Social Construction of Ancient Cities. Washington D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  53. Stein, A., 1907, Ancient Khotan: Detailed report of archaeological explorations in Chinese Turkestan. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  54. Stein, A., 1921, Serindia: Detailed report of explorations in Central Asia and westernmost China. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  55. Trigger, B. G., 1972, Determinants of urban growth in pre-industrial societies. Warner Modular.
  56. Trigger, B. G., 1990, Monumental architecture: a thermodynamic explanation of symbolic behaviour. World Archaeology, 22(2), 119–132.
  57. Trigger, B. G., 2003 ,Understanding early civilisations: a comparative study. Cambridge University Press.
  58. Von Falkenhausen, L., 2008, Stages in the development of "cities" in pre-Imperial China. In Marcus, J., Sabloff, J. A. (eds), The Ancient City: New Perspectives on Urbanism in the Old and New World (p. 209–228). Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research.
  59. Whitfield, S., 2004, Aurel Stein On The Silk Road. Chicago: Serindia Publications.
  60. Willey, G. R., 1962, Mesoamerica. In R. J. Braidwood, G. R. Willey (eds), Courses toward urban life: Archaeological considerations of some cultural alternates (p. 84–105). Chicago: Aldine.
  61. Zürcher, E., 1990, Han Buddhism and the Western Region In W. L. Idema and E. Zurcher (eds), Thought and Law. Qin and Han China: Studies Dedicated to Anthony Hulsewe on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday (p. 158–182). Brill.