Chinese Scientists Discover Overseas Archaeological Sites for the First Time along the Silk Road by Remote Sensing


Tunisia,located at the western end of the ancient Maritime Silk Road,was an important port for maritime trade in Roman Age.

A press conference was held at the Tunisian Ministry of Culture on April 19 to announce the archaeological discoveries by remote sensing in Tunisia,a country on the Silk Road.A space archaeological research team,which was led by Prof.Wang Xinyuan,Deputy Director of the International Centre on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage(HIST)under the auspices of UNESCO,in collaboration with the scientists from Tunisia,Italy,and Pakistan,implementedan African research project of the DBAR-Heritage Working Group by using spacetechnologies for discovering ten archaeological sites of ancient Rome in Tunisia at the west end of the Silk Road.This project is funded by the Digital Belt and Road Program(DBAR)of the Chinese Academy of Sciences(CAS).

For the first time, Chinese scientises have discovered archaeological sites outside China using the remote sensing technology. These sites unveil the layout of the south-line military defense system and irrigation system in ancient Rome. 

Field verification of the site of an irrigation system

Field verification of the site of an irrigation system

Field verification of the site of a retaining dam

On-the-spot investigation of a cave site from the Neolithic Period

Ten new sites are discovered via remote sensing in southern Tunisia: 1 and 2 are forts; 3,4, and 5 are limes; 6,7, and 8 are cisterns; 9 isan irrigation system; 10 is a cemetery

Desert landform of South Central Tunisia

Success is made after two years of image processing and field investigation

This joint archaeological project takes two years.In March 2016,scientists started carrying out indoor processing,interpretation,and analysis of remote sensing images and collaborated with local archaeologists to conduct field survey and verification in April and November 2017 and April 2018 respectively.Finally,they identified ten new archaeological sites of ancient Rome in southern Tunisia,including three sections of limes,two forts,one irrigation system,three tanks,and one tomb.These archeological remains constitute a chain of evidence that reflects the military defense system in the south of the ancient Roman Empire.

Site of the lime

Forts in ancient Rome

Site of the tank

Site of the irrigation system: the diversion dam is shown in blue and the retaining dam in yellow

The newly-discovered site of the ancient tomb is indicated by the yellow circle and the known site of forts by the red frame

Specifically, limes and forts are used to defend and protect the border from invasions of nomads from the south and west.The irrigation system and tanks for storage of fresh water are designed for food production tomeet the living needs of soldiers and civilians along the border.

The archaeological project mainly utilizes the remote sensing data from high-resolution satellites such as Gaofen-1,Gaofen-2,Gaofen-3,and Sentinel-2,and prejudges the suspected sites on the basis of historical information and ancient maps and by comprehensively utilizing geographic information systems for spatial analysis.In the field verification,the precise location of the site was identified by using the satellite navigation and positioning system,and a joint team of remote sensing experts and archaeologists conducted the field survey and verification.

China leads the world in discovering archaeological sitesby means of space technology

In fact,HIST has applied space archaeology technologies to discovering many archaeological remains and conducted extensive cooperation with a lot of countries,reaching the advanced level of the world.

As early as 2013,Wang Xinyuan’s team found five sites of ancient cities,over 10 house remains in two residential villages,one ancient channel site,one ancient road site and one pottery kiln site in the Guazhou(Anxi)-Shazhou(Dunhuang)section of Gansu province along the major route of the Ancient Silk Road.They made a detailed survey of their scale and shape.What the team had discovered fills the archaeological gap of discovering sites of the Han and Tang dynasties in the west of the ancient city Bazhou by using the remote sensing technology and provides abundant physical materials for the study of history and geography of China’s northwest frontier.

Archaeological discoveries in Guazhou (Anxi)-Shazhou (Dunhuang) section of Gansu province

In 2013,HIST and its hosting institute–Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth(RADI)of the Chinese Academy of Sciences,signed the Memorandum of Understanding with the National Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap(APSARA)to monitor Angkor and its surrounding environment via remote sensing technology,and subsequently to build a“sky-eye”system by using the remote sensing technology,so as to protect Angkor and its surrounding environment in Cambodia.

Classification of land use of the Angkor Site via remote sensing

These discoveries of space archeology in Tunisia are of significance in studying the military defense system and irrigation system in ancient Rome,the west-end route of the Silk Road,changes in ancient oases,and environmental evolution.

In addition, Chinese scientises, for the first time, have led relevant countries in Asia, Europe and Africa to discover foreign archaeological remains and conduct systematic research by comprehensively utlizing the remote sensing observation technologies, satellite navigation system and geographic information analysis system, and based on literature analysis, and technologies and methods for space archaeology employed in the field survey. It is of great milestone significance to improve international cooperation and research conducted by the Chinese scientists along the "Belt and Road" to develop a new model of research techniques and methods in space archaeology.  

This press conference was hosted by the DBAR-Heritage Working Group. The working group consists of the members of Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earch (RADI)/ the International Centre on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage, under the auspices of UNESCO (HIST); Tunisian National Heritage Institute (INP); Tunisian Arid Regions Institute (IRA); Italian National Research Council (CNR); and COMSATA Institute of Information Technology (COMSATS CIIT) in Pakistan. 

Prof.Guo Huadong,President of DBAR and Director of HIST,unveiled the satellite image of new discoverieswith Mr.Mohamed Zin Alabidin,Tunisian Minister of Culture,at the PressConference.

In his speech at the press conference on remote sensing archaeology along the Belt and Road,Academician Guo Huadong,Chairman of the DBAR,pointed out that one of the DBAR’s core concepts is to carry out research with other countries along the Belt and Road,and China needs to contribute its advanced technologies and ideas to these countries,especially developing countries,which demonstrates this core concept.

The DBAR represents an important content of the Big Earth Data Science Project,an A-class pilot research project launched recently by the Chinese Academy of Sciences(CAS).The DBAR is an international scientific programme for Earth observation and big Earth data to aim at the sustainable development of the“Belt and Road”Initiative by sharing data,technologies and knowledge and experience.It will take a targeted approach to conduct in-depth research and scientific cooperation in the development of the big Earth data platform,environmental changes,disaster risk reduction,water resources management,urban development,agriculture and food security,coastal zones and natural and cultural heritage.

The DBAR-Heritage Working Group is committed to using spatial information technology to grasp the authenticity and integrity of the World Heritage sites along the“Belt and Road”and identify challenges posed to their conservation across the globe,so as to formulate well-targeted protection strategies.