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Guard tower outposts on the Great Wall of China

Background: Between 1900 and 1930, archaeologist Aurel Stein rediscovered a number of ancient sites along the Silk Road in Kazakhstan and western China. Stein and his co-workers also mapped the entire region from the Taklamakan Desert eastward along the Great Wall, published most completely in Stein's5-volume work Serindia (1921).

Among the most interesting sites were a series of dozens of ruined watchtowers on the west end of China's Great Wall, many dating from the Han period (206 BC-AD 220). These watchtowers were manned by a long series of army detachments, recruited from local military departments or commanderies. Details of their soldiers' lives have emerged both from archaeological findings of their living quarters, and in many written texts found by Stein and later researchers.


Stein published his findings on Han watchtowers and their manuscripts in a series of detailed reports, including Serindia and Innermost Asia (1928).
Following his methods, the watchtower sites are here listed numerically using small roman numerals after the letter "T" (i.e., T.i, T.ii, T.iii, etc.). In the images provided here, these site numbers are used both for images and maps of the sites themselves, and on individual documents recovered from the sites.

Documents: The manuscripts include both official texts on affairs of the military outpost, providing basic historical detail, and personal documents including letters. There are also a number of religious texts, mainly pertaining to Buddhism, which was widely practiced along the Silk Road before AD 700. The documents, mostly written in ink on thin wood strips or plaques, span the period from Han through Tang dynasties (206 BC-AD 906). Most are in Chinese, but there are also documents in several other scripts.

Many of the Chinese manuscripts 
recovered by Stein were translated by two French scholars, Edouard Chavannes [1913, Documents from the Han Period] and his student Henri Maspero [1953, Han Documents from the Commanderie of Tsieou- Ts'iuan]. Their translations of a sample of the documents are provided here along with their images and a Chinese transcription. The image thumbnails also show the catalog numbers they used [i.e, Chv-001, Mas-100].

map of tower sites in Northwest China
images of sites and manuscripts: