A 1,700-year-old cemetery has been excavated along the route of the Silk Road in northwest China, according to a report in Live Science.
Seven of the ten excavated tombs were large, brick structures, one of which contained carvings of mythical creatures.
Four of the creatures represent different seasons and parts of the heavens, including the White Tiger of the West, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the Black Turtle of the North, and the Azure Dragon of the East.
The cemetery, which dates to roughly 300 CE, was discovered in the city of Kucha, an ancient city bolstered by the Silk Route economy and influential as a major Buddhist center from the Antiquities through the Middle Ages. One of the largest cities of the Western Regions — a stretch of territory to the west of ancient China — control of Kucha was strategically vital to many of the Chinese dynasties, as it served as a conduit between East Asia and the economies and cultures of Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, the Islamic world and even eventually Europe.
The cemetery dates to a time, 1,700 years ago, when Kucha would have been at the height of its power and importance.
“In ancient times, Kucha was called Qiuci in Chinese literature. It was a powerful city-state in the oasis of the Western Frontiers,” researchers explained. “The conquest and effective governance of Kucha would enable them to control all the oasis city-states in the Western Frontiers,” archaeologists wrote of the Chinese rulers who sought influence over the region.
The ancient cemetery was first discovered in 2007, and has been slowly excavated by researchers with the Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology over the last several years. Their findings were detailed in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.
Who exactly is buried in the tombs remains a mystery. Researchers say the tombs have been looted over the years, and though they were likely originally built for people of means, they came to be used more than once, with skeletal remains suggesting each tomb contained as many as ten people.