Archaeologists have discovered a 1,700-year-old cemetery located along a branch of the ancient Silk Road, one of the world's oldest international trade routes that used to connect the Asian country and the Roman Empire.

The excavators believe that the cemetery, which is located at the present-day City of Kucha in northwest China, already existed when Kucha was a powerful city-state that played a vital role in the ancient rulers' control of the Western Frontiers.

Ten magnificent tombs were unearthed in the ancient cemetery. Seven of these tombs were huge brick structures that were likely constructed for wealthy people, albeit an analysis of the skeletal remains at the site suggest that the tombs had been reused several times.

One of tombs called "M3" was found to contain carvings of legendary creatures, which include four Chinese mythological symbols that represent the different seasons and parts of the heavens, namely the Azure Dragon of the East, the Black Turtle of the North, the Vermilion Bird of the South and the White Tiger of the West.

M3 also contained a burial mound, sealed gate, entrance, ramp, screenwalls, passage, as well as burial and side chambers, according to Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology director Zhiyong Yu and colleagues.

The researchers reported the findings in the inaugural issue of the Chinese Cultural Relics, a new journal that translates articles that were originally published using the Chinese language into English. The findings were first reported in a study published in the journal Wenwu.

The cemetery, which was first discovered in July 2007, was unearthed by the Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and local authorities. Because the ancient graveyard had been looted in the past and there were no writings that indicate the names and the positions of those who were buried there, the researchers were not able to identify the people buried in the ancient tombs.

The archaeologists who excavated the site believe that the cemetery hailed back from when Kucha played a crucial role in controlling Xiyu, China's Western Frontiers. Controlling the region was crucial for the rulers of China because the ancient Silk Road trade routes passed through this location.

"In ancient times, Kucha was called Qiuci in Chinese literature," the researchers wrote. "The conquest and effective governance of Kucha would enable [the dynasties] to control all the oasis city-states in the Western Frontiers."

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