EARTHQUAKES THREATEN ANCIENT ROCK ART
Recent tremors acting as ‘a wake-up call’ for greater protection, scientists warn
When a magnitude 6.2 earthquake hit Hutubi county in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region earlier this month, concerns were raised that it might have damaged an important archaeological site just 5 kilometers away from the epicenter.
Fortunately, the Kangjiashimenji petroglyphs appear to have survived the quake, though it damaged 14,000 homes — 40 of which collapsed — and forced the relocation of more than 2,400 people after it struck at about 1:15 pm on Dec 8.
Gao Li, head of the bureau of cultural heritage in Hutubi, said no visible damage to the culturally significant petroglyphs had been identified.
“But it was a wake-up call. If we do not take more measures to protect the petroglyphs now, they could be susceptible to damage from earthquakes in future,” she said, adding that fences on the site had been damaged by the tremors and a 20-meter-long crack had appeared in a nearby parking lot.
The petroglyphs are a set of engravings that date back more than 3,000 years, depicting hundreds of men and women taking part in some kind of mass fertility ritual.
They were carved into the side of a hill that can only be reached by a three-hour drive from the county seat of Hutubi. A few meters below the carvings is a natural platform, where the fertility rituals are believed to have taken place.
Gao said the authority was currently working with imaging experts so that a scan of the carvings can be carried out to ascertain if any microscopic damage has occurred.
“There may be some damage that is imperceptible to the human eye. We need to compare pictures from these three-dimensional scans to determine what needs to be done,” she said.
According to Gao, the China Earthquake Administration have warned that Xinjiang could be experiencing a period of increased seismic activity, as the region was hit by two earthquakes in as many weeks.
Liu Cheng, a professor of archaeology at Northwestern University in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, has also conducted an on-site check of the petroglyphs.
“After an initial look, the earthquake does not seem to have affected the body of the mountain where the petroglyphs are located. But other parts of the mountain were significantly affected, and they could pose a danger to tourists in the future,” he said.
Liu urged the authorities to erect signs warning of falling rocks and to take all necessary preventive measures.
“We might also have to control the number of tourists allowed into the scenic area,” he said.
Once a detailed analysis of the damage has been carried out, Liu believes more will need to be done to protect the petroglyphs.
While it is not possible to remove or completely shield the carvings from future earthquakes, “we do need to come up with more protection measures, and be prepared for the worst”, he said.
The site’s remote location, where temperatures fall as low as -15 C in winter, is further hampering efforts to assess the damage using highly sensitive equipment.
Top: A researcher checks the damage a recent earthquake made in Hutubi county. Above: Professor Liu Cheng from Northwestern University in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, checks a weathermonitoring facility during an inspection tour of the Kangjiashimenji petroglyphs after the Dec 8 earthquake hit Hububi county.
Professor Liu discusses the petroglyphs with his colleagues during the inspection tour.