Document Type



Great Wall; building materials; environmental changes; northwestern China; archaeological materials

Identifier Data


Nature Research

Publication Source

Scientific Reports

Rights Management

Open Access


Plant materials used in the construction of segments and beacon towers of the ancient Great Wall in northwestern China contain untapped potential for revealing local paleoclimatic and environmental conditions. For the first time, we characterize the molecular preservation and stable carbon and nitrogen isotope compositions of AMS-dated common reeds (Phragmites) collected from ancient Great Wall fascines in today’s Gansu and Xinjiang using a combination of chromatographic techniques and isotope analyses. Our molecular data, along with Scanning Electron Microscopy, demonstrate excellent preservation of these ancient reeds, which were harvested from nearby habitats during periods of significant expansion of Imperial China when climate conditions sustained sizeable oases in the region. Stable isotope data capture differential rates of environmental change along the eastern margin of the Tarim Basin since the Han Dynasty (170 BC), implying that significant surface-water hydrological changes occurred only after the Song Dynasty (1160 AD) due to regional climate change. This study reveals the wealth of environmental and climate information obtainable from these site-specific organic building materials and establishes the foundation for further applications of advanced molecular, biochemical, and isotopic technologies to study these common and widely-distributed organic archaeological materials.