Ancient China From Above (2020) s01e03 Episode Script

China's Pompeii

Allan: This is an
incredible scene.
There's really no other way to
describe it than to say it's a
scene of mass death.
A single family. Frozen in time.
Buried in seconds,
almost 4,000 years ago.
A lot of people refer
to this as china's pompeii.
Could this tragedy
hold clues to the
collapse of one of china's very
earliest ancient kingdoms?
I'm allan maca.
An archaeologist and expert
in ancient civilizations.
And I'm investigating
china's distant past from
a whole new perspective, space!
Today, state of the art
satellites see the world
in stunning detail
and reveal hidden archaeology,
enabling us to recreate
a lost ancient world,
invisible to the naked eye.
Working alongside
leading chinese experts,
my team and I are traveling
to some of the country's
most remote and
incredible landscapes,
and with cutting edge science,
investigating previously
unknown cultures, lost cities
and devastating cataclysms.
This is ancient china as
you've never seen it before.

300 miles west of beijing in
china's shaanxi province and
on the edge of barren desert,
are the hills of
the loess plateau.
I'm here to explore a
revolutionary new discovery
that's completely rewriting
the earliest history of china.
This is shimao.
A 4000-year old citadel.
At the heart of a
lost ancient kingdom.
Nothing prepares you
to see this place in person.
This is one of the greatest
new discoveries in the
archaeology of the world.
This was clearly a
massive, massive city.
The significance of this
discovery became clear
just a few years ago.
Shimao, may have been the
biggest city of its time
anywhere on the entire planet.
And chinese archaeologists
are only just beginning to
reveal its secrets.
Now, with new technology,
I want to explore this
ancient society.
Wow! Congratulations.
What's behind its most
chilling discoveries?
I can tell that some of
the bones are very young.
And can the fate of
china's other lost
civilizations help me solve
one of the greatest
mysteries of all?
I feel like I am in the presence
of something otherworldly.
Why, after 500 years
of living here,
did the people of this
great city seemingly
Just vanish?
Before this discovery,
this was just a grassy hill.
The only sign of
anything manmade,
was a simple line of rocks.
When they first found
this they thought it was a
part of the great wall,
you can see why.
So they began some excavations
around here and they found no
this is 2000 years
earlier than the earliest
phase of the great wall.
These walls are
incredibly well preserved,
yet they're
over 4,000 years old!
That means shimao is
built at the same time
as stonehenge in britain
and thrived more than 2000
years before the roman empire.
I've been to a lot of
ancient cities and you don't
actually feel like you are in
a city because they are ruins
but this, in this place
I feel like I am there.
This would be an
extraordinary discovery
anywhere but to understand why
this is so ground-breaking,
we need to see it, from space.
The stepped structure at the
center of the city is built
into a hillside, high above the
meeting point of two rivers.
It's in dusty, rugged terrain
that borders the sparsely
populated ordos desert.
Experts never expected to find
a major ancient city here.
It was long thought that
chinese civilization began
much later, and hundreds of
miles to the south in the
fertile plains of
the yellow river.
A stone walled
settlement is totally
unexpected at this time period
and this place but I want to
know what kind of society
built something so large and
so sophisticated.
I'm lucky to have
been invited to
explore the latest
discoveries with shao jing,
one the lead
archaeologists at shimao.
Shao: This is the path up to
the giant central platform.
Allan: This is an
immense amount of labor here.
This is not rammed earth.
This is not mud brick.
This is stone that had to be
brought up here to the site.
It looks like
nothing I've ever seen.
Shao: It's the first time in the
history of chinese archaeology
we have found a 4000 year old
structure built this way.
Allan: I know that I had never
expected to see anything like
this but it's amazing to hear
that you all had never expected
to find anything this
far north at this time.
This vast stepped
structure is at the
center of the city.
The team is currently
excavating the remains of
buildings that once
stood at the top.
They're trying to figure
out how this society worked.
Shao: This is the top of
the giant central platform.
The whole area covers
20,000 square meters.
In this prosperous city
the high-class people
would live here.
It included the king's palace,
his administration and large
scale artisan's workshops
allan: Okay, so all
of the elites were
here living, working.
The king was here.
From the latest excavation
data we can recreate what
shimao might've looked
like 4000 years ago.
A series of stone platforms
with restricted access
to each higher level.
Right at the top, the
palaces of the city's rulers.
There's clearly a
well-defined hierarchy here.
This huge structure, this
palace dominates the
entire area, it's
visible for miles.
So this thing is a constant
reminder of the power of the
people who governed here.
One of the crazy things is
that archaeologists have only
excavated a fraction of this
which makes me wonder how much
is out there in
the surrounding area?
Chinese researchers
are discovering
ruins spread all over the
rugged terrain by combining
drone sensing
with excavations.
Now, my tech specialist
ryan kastner and drone pilot
william luo are going to
create a photogrammetry model
so I can understand just
how large this city was.
Ryan: Ideally what we want to
do is we want to pop it up.
William: Okay.
Ryan: And we want to try to
see where the wall's going.
Allan: My team engineer eric lo
combines thousands of images
to create a 3d
view of the terrain,
called a digital
elevation model or dem.
Ryan: So let's have
a look at the data.
Eric: So these are the three
multi spectral flights that
we did this morning.
Ryan: Mm-hmm.
Eric: And then we can see
hints of the wall here.
But let's switch over
to the dem so we have a
bit of clearer view.
Ryan: Yeah. It's a lot
easier to see on this, huh?
So we can see the wall
we were focusing on.
Right on the ridge which
makes a whole lot of sense.
Allan: The 3d reconstruction
clearly brings
out the remains of a city wall
that follows the ridgeline.
In all, 6 miles of these
walls have been identified
hidden in this landscape.
They mark out an enclosed inner
city and an additional ring
of outer wall surrounds
1,000 acre site,
an area the size of about
200 new york city blocks.
That means that 4000 years
ago this could've been the
biggest city on the planet.
The scale of this place
is unprecedented
But even the smallest
artifacts being found here
are transforming our
understanding of how
civilization develops in china.
Ahh, this is a lot
of material here.
You guys have been busy.
This incredibly
fragile jade scepter
is a symbol of power,
carried by rulers of shimao.
It's very light,
it's very light weight!
It would sit on
a staff, right?
It's amazing to me how
thin they could cut it.
I mean, you can see you
can see my hand behind
here in the light.
Shao: Only the son of the
god, the emperor held this.
He held this to
pray to the god,
to tell the god that he
was the rightful ruler.
Allan: This is the
earliest example of a
jade scepter ever found.
Even the most ordinary looking
objects are ground-breaking.
These burn holes show that
these are what's known as
oracle bones, a means
of divining the future.
The very first chinese writing
will later appear on just this
kind of fortune
telling device.
And one crucial find gives
its name to an entire age
of human development
Shao: This is a knife.
Allan: This would
have been the edge.
Shao: Huh. We have
only a few dozen.
These date to around 2000 bc.
They are some of the
earliest bronzes ever found.
Allan: Wow this is incredible.
All these amazing finds are
revealing that many of the
foundations of chinese
civilization appear
here at shimao,
centuries earlier than
anyone ever expected.
But the team has just made
an astonishing discovery like
nothing ever seen
in china before.
I'm one of the first
outsiders allowed to see it.
Shao: This is a very
important discovery.
The people of shimao have left
us a gift from 4000 years ago
allan: Wow!
Allan: Archaeologists
excavating the ancient megacity
at shimao have just
discovered incredible
4000 year-old carvings in
the central palace area.
This is unbelievable.
This looks like like
the ancient mayan city
of copan in honduras
from the 6th century
a.D., 2500 years later.
As an archaeologist, does
it get better than this?
Shao: Not that I know of.
Allan: There are faces that
look half human half animal;
strange hybrids and
familiar creatures are
all carved into the walls
of the giant platform.
It's a unique insight into
the beliefs of the people
who built this city.
Shao: These aren't
images of people.
They are all
representations of gods.
Allan: This is amazing and that
there is also such variety,
so for example
what is this?
I mean, it almost looks
like maybe some kind of
a sea creature.
Shao: This is similar
to a find called the
green pine dragon
from erlitou city, the home
of a later dynasty, the xia.
Allan: This later dynasty of
the central yellow river plains
was thought to have founded
chinese civilization,
but shimao is rewriting history.
So far the team here have
excavated just one side
of the giant central platform.
Much still remains buried.
But already, the skill
and complexity of this lost
society is vividly emerging.
The carved stone facades
of this building are
incredible I mean this is
this is 4,000 years ago.
And you've got images of gods,
images of animals like snakes,
you even have a dragon which
becomes a formative symbol in
chinese dynasties.
Everything about shimao
is more advanced,
much earlier and far bigger
than anyone thought possible.
And all in this
unlikeliest of places.
Yet there's a huge mystery here.
Archaeologists have dated
artifacts found here
to between 4,300 and
3,800 years ago
But after that, there's nothing.
This means that after
500 years of occupation,
the entire city of shimao
seems to be abandoned.
Something happened here
that forced these people
to relocate or
wiped them out entirely.
The question is what?
I'm heading across
china to see if
the latest discoveries about
the collapse of other ancient
societies can offer clues
to what happened at shimao.
First, I'm heading to the
mountainous upper reaches of
the yellow river, to the
site of an ancient apocalypse.
This horrible event
took place 3,900 years ago.
But being here and
seeing it myself,
there's an immediacy
like this just happened.
The village of lajia was home to
a thriving early bronze-age
community that developed at
the same time as shimao.
There's at least 14
individuals here.
They all died at once.
You can see women with their
children as young as perhaps
two or three or
four years old,
huddled together around
the cooking fire and
clearly this was a family.
It's clear to me that the
people here had no time
whatsoever to get out.
All they could do was huddle
the young together and hope
and pray that
they would survive.
This frozen, cataclysmic moment
has been compared to
pompeii, near ancient rome.
But this family is not
entombed in volcanic ash,
but thick mud.
This is such a striking
moment of death here at lajia,
this adult protecting
the child from harm while
seemingly looking up.
What happened here?
ye maolin and his team
first discovered the bodies and
they've spent years trying
to piece together how this
tragedy unfolded.
And they've
found a vital clue.
Ye: Look at the
big crack here.
It's from an earthquake.
A crack this big shows how
powerful the earthquake was.
Allan: Ok wow, so this whole,
this whole thing was just
completely cracked open.
The massive
earthquake demolished
these houses
trapping the families.
But these people
are buried in mud.
Where did it come from?
The latest chinese research
suggests the earthquake
triggered a cataclysmic
chain of events.
An ancient village
known as china's pompeii,
that left its people buried
in mud and frozen in time.
The answer could be
visible from space,
even after almost 4000 years.
My team's
satellite archaeologist,
sarah klassen, is looking at
data from a mountainous gorge
25 miles upstream from lajia.
She's been told about a
mysterious gap in a mountain
ridge overlooking
the yellow river.
Sarah: There is this one
large area that looks
like it's been erased.
It's almost as though someone
has come through and wiped it
off the landscape.
What we are looking at
here is actually a landslide.
Allan: The devastating
earthquake that hit lajia
would have set off landslides
across a huge area.
Some experts believe
one of them buried the
people of lajia in mud.
But the latest research
suggests a new theory.
That this landslide further
upstream was so massive,
that it set off a chain
reaction that led to disaster
on a biblical scale.
To understand what
happened, I'm heading
high above the gorge.
Geoarchaeologist, wu qinglong
believes the landslide caused
one of the biggest disasters
ever to hit china and that
it's linked to a phenomenon
known as a quake lake.
Wu: The landslide
happened over there.
We can see there is a huge
part missing from the ridge.
At the end of the
neolithic period,
there was a terrible
earthquake here,
it was so destructive that
this entire ridge fell down.
And the rocks blocked
the yellow river.
Allan: The massive
shockwaves send an
entire mountain tumbling
into the gorge.
Creating a 200 meter
tall dam across the river,
its remains are still visible
nearly 4000 years later.
The dammed river begins to
form one of the biggest
"quake lakes" ever discovered.
Dr wu calculates that after
several months it would have
stretched 50 miles upstream,
holding over 12 billion
cubic meters of water.
The pressure builds as the
waters continue to rise
Until the dam Breaks.
Wu: Within 12 hours 90%
of the water burst out.
Allan: That's insanely fast.
Wu: That's catastrophic.
Allan: No question.
If dr wu is right,
this is one of the biggest
freshwater floods ever studied
and bigger than any in
china's recorded history.
It would have wrought
devastation for hundreds
of miles downstream.
So, back at shimao, might
this city have been hit by a
similar cataclysmic
natural disaster?
The city is surrounded
on 2 sides by rivers.
But it's hundreds of feet
above the valley floor,
which rules out
catastrophic flood.
What about an earthquake?
Devastating quakes have struck
china throughout its history.
One of the deadliest of all
time ravaged this part of
china 500 years ago.
But shimao's amazingly
preserved walls show no sign
of earthquake damage.
So what did happen here?
I'm heading to investigate
the disappearance of another
remarkable ancient
civilization 600 miles
southwest in guanghan
in sichuan province.
30 years ago, a
discovery was made here
that stunned the world.
I've been given special
access to one of china's
most extraordinary
archaeological treasures.
Could this amazing find help
answer the mystery of what
happened at shimao?
An amazing relic of an ancient
chinese civilization that
I hope could hold clues to
the abandonment of shimao.
When I see this, when
I'm confronted with this,
I feel like I'm in the presence
of something other-worldly.
This astonishing bronze mask is
evidence that there was
another completely unknown
chinese civilization
that existed about
500 years after shimao.
This is like nothing
else I have seen in china.
And when this was found this
was like nothing anyone had
ever seen in the world.
It's just one of a
treasure trove of
precious objects found at
the site of an ancient
city called sanxingdui.
There are scores
of giant faces,
striking bronze heads
with golden masks,
and humanlike sculptures
performing mysterious rituals.
I just can't believe how
many bronze objects there
are, and the
variety is extraordinary.
The world's leading expert on
sanxingdui believes the
giant masks depict gods,
and the bronze heads represent
the rulers of the city.
Sun: We've found many
bronze heads in sanxingdui.
But we can divide
them into two types.
Some of them have long braided
hair and some of them don't,
they tie their
hair up instead.
Allan: Professor sun
believes these masks,
with two distinctive
hair styles,
represent the two different
clans who ruled the city.
And his theory could
help answer sanxingdui's
most puzzling question.
Just like at shimao, the city
seemed to suddenly disappear.
The clue to what happened lies
30 miles south in chengdu,
the site of another ancient
city, called jinsha.
It emerged around the same
time as sanxingdui's demise
and archaeologists have found
hundreds of objects here,
evidence that the two cities
belonged to the same culture.
But professor sun
believes there's one
crucial thing missing.
Archaeologists here have only
found figures from one of the
two clans: Those
with braided hair.
Sun: The people who had braids
became the rulers of jinsha.
Allan: So what happened to
the people that had no braid?
The people with
their hair pinned up?
Sun: My theory is that
at the end of sanxingdui,
there was a great conflict
between the clan without braids
and those with braids and the
whole city was destroyed.
Allan: Professor sun's theory,
of a city torn apart when
one clan destroys another in a
violent civil war, would
explain why sanxingdui was
suddenly abandoned.
So could something similar
have happened at shimao?
It seems possible.
Because excavations are
uncovering grizzly evidence
of brutal killing.
Look at this. It's just heads.
Shao: Yeah.
Allan: Looking at the skulls, I
can tell that some of the bones
are not yet fused,
so they're very young.
Shao: Teenager.
Allan: Teenagers.
Shao: Yeah.
Allan: Ok.
Shao: We can tell that these
heads were cut off because on
many we found
incision marks here.
Allan: But these are not the
victims of a power-struggle
within the city.
Examination of the skulls
shows they are all young women
and chemical analysis of their
teeth reveals they're not from
here, but from more than 100
miles away to the northwest.
So, how did their
remains end up here?
Shao: It could be because
shimao was involved in
some violence.
Like wars with
other territories.
Allan: It seems these young
women were captives.
Victims of human sacrifice.
It appears to be gruesome
evidence of conflict with a
rival, enemy kingdom.
So, could shimao's downfall
have been caused by war?
Allan: I'm investigating
the abandonment
of the colossal
ancient city of shimao.
There's no evidence here
for the natural disasters and
internal conflict that destroyed
other ancient civilizations.
I want to know, could war with
undiscovered rival kingdoms
have caused its downfall?
To find out, I'm going to
analyze the city's defenses
and investigate if
they were ever breached.
Starting with the main gateway
through the city's outer wall,
the formidable east gate.
My tech experts ryan kastner
and eric lo are using laser
scanning, called lidar,
to reveal its structure.
Eric: So what the lidar is
going to produce is a 3d model
that we can move around, look
at from different angles and
take measurements of, as if
we had it in real life
but we can do it
on the computer.
Allan: Hey guys.
Ryan: Hey al, we've got some
good stuff to show you man.
Allan: Alright, east gate?
Ryan: Yeah so we've been
lidaring round the east gate
the past couple of days,
we were able to scan the
entire thing
allan: Wow.
Ryan: Yeah this is a combination
of about 100 different scans.
Allan: The scans
reveal advanced defenses.
The outer walls
include bastions,
protrusions at regular
intervals that allow archers
to fire on the flanks
of an enemy attack.
And the gateway itself is
also ingeniously designed.
This is the main entrance
to the gate here but
the entire structure is built
on the edge of a steep cliff.
Now if an invading army had
managed to climb all the way
to the top of the cliff they
are confronted first by this
u shaped structure which means
they are going to have to
divide their force to get in
through the gate entrance.
And what would be
waiting for them here?
Probably hundreds of soldiers
as the first line of defense.
The main gateway is
protected by guardhouses
and two massive
towers overlooking an
l-shaped passageway.
It forces attackers through
a right-angled turn and into
more concealed
defensive positions.
And these fortifications are
just protecting the outer city.
There's a further inner wall
and a mile of jagged terrain
to cross even to reach
the towering walls of
the palace area itself.
There's something
fundamentally important
about the idea of
defense at shimao.
The city was prepared for an
attack on a massive scale.
But archaeologists have found
no evidence of destruction or
any sign that these magnificent
defenses were ever breached.
So war did not
destroy this city.
But perhaps, there's just
one more possibility
That might finally
explain shimao's downfall.
My team archaeologist sarah
klassen is heading 800 miles
southeast of shimao, to
the yangtze river delta.
She's investigating some
recently discovered ancient
structures that succumbed to
a final destructive force.
She starts by examining a
digital elevation model or dem,
a relief map, made from
multiple satellite images.
Sarah: With the dem, I'm
looking for things that you
wouldn't necessarily expect
to see in nature because it's
too, too perfect
or too engineered.
To the north up here,
this is really interesting.
There are two kind of
linear embankments with a
depressed area in the middle.
Allan: Archaeologist wang
ningyuan leads a team
revealing that these banks are
ancient manmade earthworks
Sarah: Oh wow, you can really
get a sense of how big this
feature was and how many
people would have been
necessary to build it.
Wang: From there to there
it's about 100 meters across.
Allan: This massive earth wall
is built between two hills
to create an ancient
man-made dam and reservoir.
And from the satellite data,
wang ningyuan's team have
discovered this is just
one tiny part of a massive
water control system.
Miles of artificial waterways
that provided transport and
control of agriculture over an
area nearly twice the size of
manhattan island.
Amazingly, the ongoing
excavations here have dated
this to over 5000 years ago,
it's the oldest evidence
of humans harnessing water
ever discovered.
Chinese experts believe it
allowed an earth-walled city
of more than 30,000 people to
flourish in these flood prone
coastal lowlands.
That means that
this new discovery,
called liangzhu, is the oldest
city ever found in china!
But like shimao, this
city was also abandoned
after 800 years.
And here, the latest
excavation is finding
evidence of why.
to find out why the
ancient stone city at shimao
vanished 3800 years ago,
I've ruled out the
earthquakes, floods and
wars that destroyed
other ancient civilizations.
But sarah's investigating
one more possibility.
She's looking for answers in
the demise of the oldest city
ever found in china.
Here, wang ningyuan and his
team are finding evidence that
the city's agriculture was
hit by an unstoppable force,
climate change.
Wang: The layers below
here belong to the final
period of liangzhu.
This is all manmade.
The thick layer here on
top has accumulated from
repeated seawater floods.
Allan: The team's
evidence suggests that
prolonged heavy
rains destroyed the
city's agriculture.
Dwindling food supplies forced
the population to move away
and then silt left by
centuries of rising sea-levels
buried what remained.
Wang: It's amazing that liangzhu
could support such a big city.
But when the climate
changed and big floods came,
this city was helpless
in the face of nature.
So the environment forged this
civilization but also somehow,
decided its end.
Allan: If a dramatic
shift in the climate
could destroy a city the
size of liangzhu could
something similar have
happened at shimao?
Recent analysis of ancient
pollen grains found across
northern china reveals that
when shimao was at its peak,
it was much warmer and wetter.
But 3800 years ago, just
when the city declined,
the monsoon weather
patterns changed abruptly.
This area became
drier and colder.
The climate change
evidence makes perfect sense.
If you look at the landscape,
look at the soils,
it just doesn't seem that
this area could have sustained
such large numbers of
people in ancient times.
This is the best
explanation so far
for the demise of shimao.
That sudden climate change
transformed this region
into a cold semi-desert,
ravaging the civilization
with famine and drought.
All the things that sustained
life were no longer possible
and when you've got
people that aren't satisfied
you get flight and
you get abandonment.
The people of shimao deserted
their once great city,
leaving it to disappear
beneath the windblown silt.
Lost for millennia until now.
It's so exciting.
These discoveries are
changing everything.
The where and when of how it
all began has typically been
lost to the mists of time
but now we have real evidence.
Right now, all across china,
cutting edge archaeology is
uncovering an entirely new
chapter in the story
of human civilization.
I'm amazed to learn how
these lost cultures struggled
to survive in the face of
earthquakes and landslides,
floods and war, catastrophes
with the power to destroy.
It's a reminder
that great empires
rise and can be wiped out
again in the blink of an eye.
But what they've left behind
has laid the foundations for
all the wonders to come.
The new beliefs, architecture,
art, and hierarchies
that would lead to thousands of
years of civilization in china.
Captioned by cotter
captioning services.
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