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Near Surface Geophysics, 2015, 13, 477-484 


Magnetic gradient and ground penetrating radar prospecting

of buried earthen archaeological remains at the Qocho City
site in Turpan, China
Zhanjie Shi1,3, Gang Tian2, Richard W. Hobbs3, Haowei Wo1*, Jinxin Lin1,
Leyuan Wu2 and Haiyan Liu2
Institute of Culture and Heritage, Zhejiang University, Yuhangtang Road 866, Hangzhou 310058, China
Department of Earth Sciences, Zhejiang University, Zheda Road 38, Hangzhou 310027, China
Department of Earth Sciences, Durham University, South Road, Durham DH1 3LE, UK

Received May 2014, revision accepted June 2015

In order to test the ability of geophysical technologies to detect buried structures made of mud brick
and rammed earth, a geophysical survey was acquired at Qocho City site of China in 2012 using
magnetic gradient and ground penetrating radar (GPR). Magnetic anomalies were interpreted as the
response of house wall foundations, pits, and a temple base by reference to archaeological results
from a neighbouring excavation area. The magnetic data were complemented by 2D ground penetrating radar profiles, which provided additional information on the depth of these causative structures. An archaeological survey dated 1913 reported the layout of three houses that have since been
largely razed to the ground in the study area. Our geophysical survey confirmed the locations of two
houses. This study shows that magnetic and ground penetrating radar methods are valuable tools to
detect buried earthen archaeological remains in a dry environment.
The use of geophysical methods to detect buried ruins in the
archaeological investigation has been widely reported. Geophysical
technologies are applied for guiding excavation (Capizzi et al.
2007; Forte and Pipan 2008; Porsani, Jangelme, and Kipnis 2010;
Sarris et al. 2013; Zananiri, Hademenos, and Piteros 2010) and for
analysing larger layout of a site by extending the mapping of ruins
that have already been excavated (Bossuet et al. 2012; Gaffney et
al. 2000; Seren et al. 2004; Utsi 2010; Verdonck et al. 2012) and
capturing the integrity degree of standing monuments (Masini,
Persico, and Rizzo 2010; Nuzzo and Quarta 2012; Papadopoulos
et al. 2012). Compared with traditional excavation, which would
be time consuming and would possibly cause damage to the existing topography and ruins within the study area, geophysical technologies provide an efficient and non-destructive tool.
However, detecting buried earthen structures using geophysical technologies is challenging due to the complication caused
by subtle physical contrast between buried archaeological
remains and the surrounding subsoil (Lasaponara et al. 2011).
However, it is important to test geophysical means to detect buried earthen materials as they are widely used in construction by
several civilizations mainly in arid and semi-arid lands. Further


2015 European Association of Geoscientists & Engineers

surface expression of these structures can be easily destroyed

after abandonment.
Magnetic gradient and ground penetrating radar (GPR) are
the two widely used geophysical technologies for detecting subsurface archaeological structures. Magnetic gradient prospecting
provides horizontal position and shape information of buried
structures in the form of the plan image. GPR 2D or 3D surveys
provide depth information of the archaeological remains. Many
successful application cases of both technologies are reported in
the detection of stone structures, wooden structures, ditches, and
so on (for example, Bonomo, Osella, and Ratto (2013); Capizzi
et al. (2007); Conyers (2011); Gaffney et al. (2012); Kadioglu
(2010); Di Mauro et al. (2011); Scardozzi, Giese, and Hbner
(2013); Thompson and Pluckhahn (2012)). For the detection of
earthen remains, there are only a limited number of papers from
a ceremonial site of Cahuachi in Peru, which lies in the desert
environment (Masini et al. 2008; Lasaponara et al. 2011).
This study presents the first geophysical detection results of
buried earthen archaeological remains at Qocho City site in
Turpan District, China. The goal of the survey was to test the
ability of geophysical technologies used to detect buried earthen
structures and to investigate the city layout in the study area. The
buildings of Qocho City site were constructed mainly using
earthen materials such as rammed soil and mudbrick.


Z. Shi et al.

Location and aerial view of
Qocho City site, location of study
area. (a) Location of Qocho City
site situated about 30 km southeast of Turpan City, Xinjiang
Province, China. (b) Aerial view
of Qocho City site. (c) Location
of the geophysical survey near an
excavation area in the southeast
of Qocho City site. Magnetic gradient survey areas in grey and
GPR survey lines in black are
shown (satellite image from
Google EarthTM).

The mudbricks, made from clay, were sun-dried, which enhances

their magnetic properties caused by the presence of iron oxides
(Herbich, Hedstrom, and Davis 2007); hence it was thought
likely that they might be detected using magnetic methods. We
used a G858 handheld vertical gradient magnetometer with dual
cesium sensors to acquire a vertical magnetic gradient survey of
two areas of 2625 m2 and 3000 m2 near an excavation area
(Fig. 1). After processing of the gradient data, the plan of the
possible buried earthen structures was inferred by reference to
archaeological results of the neighbouring excavation area. As
Turpan has a dry environment, we chose GPR technology and
acquired a number of GPR profiles using pulseEKKO PRO GPR
system to test the viability of this method and to ascertain the
depth of the structures mapped by magnetic anomalies (Fig.1).
Qocho City site lies in the Turpan Basin about 30km southeast
of Turpan City in Xinjiang Province and was the largest capital
city with an area of 1,980,000 m2 in the Chinese western region
on the Silk Road (Fig.1). Besides being an important junction
between China, central Asia, west Asia, and Europe, Qocho City
was the capital city of Qocho Kingdom (A.D. 442A.D. 640)
and Qocho Uyghur Kingdom (A.D.794A.D.1383). It was also
the seat of local authority during Han-Jin Dynasty
(B.C.38A.D.327), North-South Dynasty (A.D.327A.D.442),
and Tang Dynasty (A.D. 640A.D. 794) of China. In 1383,
Qocho Uyghur Kingdom was defeated by Chagatai Khanate and
Qocho City began to fall into disuse.

The important position and historic value of the Qocho City

site are of major interest to archaeologists. Over the past century,
archaeological scholars (Lecoq 1913; Stein 1928; Yan 1962; Liu
1995; Meng 2000) have investigated the city layout. Their work
was mainly based on the ruins that were then to be seen above the
ground. However, over the years, much of the site has been
destroyed by human activities, such as war and agricultural cultivation, and natural factors, such as wind erosion; thus, the larger
layout of the city can only be appreciated by the investigation of
the sub-surface. Since 2006, five archaeological excavations with
a total area of about 3,000 m2 have been finished (Wu et al. 2012).
Though important findings have been recorded through excavation, we still know very little about the larger layout of the city
through these small-scale archaeological excavations.
In 2011, the latest archaeological excavation in the southeast
area of the site shown in Fig.1 unveiled a dwelling ruin. Where
remains are found above the ground, they are usually constructed
from a mixture of rammed soil and adobe brick, whereas the
foundations below ground were constructed mainly using adobe
brick (Fig.2a and 2b). The surrounding material of archaeological structures is compacted soil, which has a subtle physical
difference with the remains. Our survey focuses on the area near
this dwelling ruin.
Magnetic gradient
The areas surveyed by the magnetic gradient method are shown
in Fig.1. Area-I is 75m long in northsouth direction and 35m

2015 European Association of Geoscientists & Engineers, Near Surface Geophysics, 2015, 13, 477-484

GPR prospecting of remains at Qocho City

wide in westeast direction, and Area-II is 100m long in north

south direction and 30m wide in westeast direction. The intention of Area-I is to test if the geophysical data can detect structures that are similar with those found in the neighbouring
excavation area. In Area-II, Stein had identified three house ruins
in 1913 (Fig.8); however, since then, the ruins have been almost
completely erased. The intention is to uncover the preservation
status on the wall foundations of the three houses and potentially
find other buried ruins by geophysical technologies.
A handheld G858 cesium magnetometer with dual sensors of
distance interval of 1m was used to measure the vertical magnetic gradient of the Earths total magnetic field (Fig.2c). The
orientation of the two magnetic sensors was set up with a tilt
angle of 0 using the method described by Rizzo et al. (2010).
The bottom sensor was positioned vertically over each point with
an estimated height above the ground surface of about 0.3m. The
measurements were collected through successive zigzag traverses. The traverse interval was set at 0.5 m, and the sample
interval was set at 10 Hz. For the gradiometric measurements, in
order to have a good correlation between the positions of the
magnetic anomaly and the buried remains, the measurements on
each line were done walking along a line with a mark of 20 m.
Moreover, before collecting geophysical data, we set the corner

Photos of excavation area and magnetic field work (camera locations are
shown in Fig. 1). (a) Residual house wall in the northwest corner of
excavation area. (b) House wall foundations and a pit located in the
excavation area. (c) Magnetic gradient field work in Area-I. In Area-II,
similar barren feature remains above ground.


points of survey area using total station and measured the coordinates of these points using GPS. We plotted the magnetic gradient map through interpolating these coordinates.
Figure 3 is the image of magnetic gradient raw data in Area-I
(Fig. 3a) and in Area-II (Fig. 3b). At the top of Area-I, we
observe three rectangular magnetic anomalies probably caused
by subsurface archaeological remains. We observe some linear
magnetic anomalies accompanying with zigzag noises caused by
the opposite direction of the adjacent survey lines in Area-I and
Area-II. Also, there are some spike random noises in the image
of both areas. We can see a band shaped magnetic anomaly
caused by the red brick paved for the travel road near the left
boundary of Area-I.
Ground penetrating radar
In Area-I and Area-II, a 2D GPR survey was carried out at six
locations to determine the depth of the structures inferred from
magnetic gradient data (Figs 1 and 8). A pulseEKKO PRO GPR
system equipped with 250-MHz central-frequency antennas was
used to acquire common offset data. A constant distance interval
between adjacent measuring samples of the profiles was set to
0.1m to ensure sufficient resolution.
The six profiles of GPR raw data are shown in Fig. 4. We
observe some electromagnetic anomalies probably caused by
buried structures in the six profiles, for example, the anomalies
at the depth of about 1.5 m with the horizontal distance between
5 m and 10 m in profile 1; the electromagnetic anomalies at the
depth between 1 m and 2 m with the distances from 15 m to 20m
in profile 3; some refractions at the depth of about 1.4 m with a
distance of about 24 m in profile 4 and at the depth of about
0.3m with the distances of about 26 m and 37 m in profile 5. We
see the strong background noises caused by a direct wave
between two unshielded GPR antennas in each profile.

Image of magnetic gradient raw data in Area-I and Area-II in Qocho City
site. (a) Magnetic map of raw data in Area-I, neighbouring the excavation
area. (b) Magnetic map of raw data in Area-II.

2015 European Association of Geoscientists & Engineers, Near Surface Geophysics, 2015, 13, 477-484


Z. Shi et al.

GPR profiles of GPR raw data
from GPR1 to GPR6. The position of each GPR survey line is
shown in Figs 1 and 8.

Magnetic gradient
Figure 5a shows the processing flow of magnetic gradient data.
Geoplot 3 software (Geoscan Research 2012) was used to process the data. We first used destagger function to adjust the
adjacent survey lines to remove the zigzag noise and recover the
accurate position of the survey lines. Secondly, clip function was
used to reduce a few extreme values probably caused by small
iron objects on the surface. Then despike function was used to
suppress the random spike noise further. Next, interpolation
function was used to create a smoother appearance to the data.
Finally, high-frequency noise was suppressed and further data
smoothing was finished by applying the Gaussian low-pass filter
with a radius of 2 m.

Data processing flow of magnetic gradient data (a) and GPR data (b).

2015 European Association of Geoscientists & Engineers, Near Surface Geophysics, 2015, 13, 477-484

GPR prospecting of remains at Qocho City


Magnetic gradient map of processed data in Area-I and Area-II in Qocho
City site. (a) Magnetic map of Area-I, neighbouring the excavation area.
(b) Magnetic map of Area-II.

GPR profiles after background
direct wave noise reduction using
median filtering from GPR1 to

2015 European Association of Geoscientists & Engineers, Near Surface Geophysics, 2015, 13, 477-484


Z. Shi et al.

The processed magnetic gradient data are shown in Fig.6. We

observe that the signal noise ratio is increased after processing.
The magnetic anomalies are easier to discern, and the anomaly
shape is clearly shown.
Ground penetrating radar
Figure 5b is the processing flow of GPR data. The GPR data
were processed using EKKO_View Deluxe software. Firstly, the
raw data were preprocessed by data editing. Then using DC
removal function, we remove DC drift noise caused by shifting
of the entire pulse from the 0 line. Thirdly, we used median filtering to remove background direct wave noise. Next, the electromagnetic wave velocity of 0.12m/ns was determined based on
fitting diffraction hyperbola observed on GPR profiles 2, 4, 5,
and 6 (Fig.7). Using the velocity of 0.12 m/ns, we finished the
migration processing and depth conversion of the GPR data.
Figure 7 shows the results of processed GPR data after median
filtering. We see that the background direct wave noises have
been mostly reduced. The migration results are shown in Fig.9.
We observe, after migration processing, that the diffraction waves
are corrected and the reflection waves become clearer.

Results and interpretation of magnetic gradient. Left: magnetic gradient
results in Area-I and Area-II. Right: archaeological results of excavation
area from Wu et al. in 2011 (thin grey lines) and investigation results
from Stein in 1913 (bold grey lines) and interpretation of main magnetic
anomalies in Area-I and Area-II (possible buried archaeological remains:
thick solid brick red lines; soil ridges: thick dashed blue lines); also
showing the location of GPR profiles 16. The projections are UTM with
the grids in meters.

Magnetic gradient
The results and interpretation of magnetic gradient in Area-I and
Area-II are shown in Fig. 8, together with the archaeological
results of the neighbouring excavation area from Wu et al. in
2011 and investigation from Stein in 1913 (Wu et al. 2012; Stein
1928). The structure layout of archaeological excavation area
and Steins archaeological record are indicated using thin grey
lines and bold grey lines, respectively, in Fig.8.
By comparing the shape and size of magnetic anomalies with
archaeological results of the neighbouring excavation area, the
likely cause of the magnetic anomalies was inferred as a temple
base labeled with T, house wall foundations labeled with W1
W7 and pits labeled with P1P10. The interpretation results
are indicated by the solid thick brick red lines in Fig.8. In AreaII, in 1913, from the ruins above the ground, Stein identified
three houses whose locations are indicated using H1H3 in
Fig.8. However, now the houses remains above the ground have
been destroyed and cannot be seen. In the positions of H1 and
H2, the shape and size of magnetic anomalies are nearly consistent with those of the houses found by Stein. However, for
house H3, the expected shape of the house cannot be identified
from the magnetic anomaly though the possible house foundation F can be inferred. We therefore conclude that H3 house
wall foundations have mostly been destroyed or over-printed by
later movement of earth. Strong, caused by soil ridges, nearly
linear magnetic anomalies in Area-I and irregular-shaped magnetic anomalies in Area-II are indicated by dashed thick blue
lines in Fig.8.
From the interpretation results of magnetic gradient data, we
see that there are the temple, houses, and pits in Area-I that are
the similar archaeological remains with those in neighbouring
excavation area. However, in Area-II, there are only some houses. So they may belong to a different function area. For example,
Area-I is probably a religious ruin, whereas Area-II is possibly
only a dwelling ruin for ancient people.
Ground penetrating radar
The six processed GPR profiles in Area-I and Area-II are shown
in Fig.9 where the main radar anomalies are indicated by white
rectangles. Combining Fig.9 with Fig.8, it is found that GPR
anomalies are at locations along the profile that correspond to
where the profile crosses magnetic anomalies. The anomaly of
GPR profile 1 indicates the depth of the possible temple base
T, and the anomalies of GPR profiles 2 and 4 provide the
depth information of possible pits P5 and P4, respectively.
The depth of possible foundations of house wall W1, W2,
W3, W4, and W5 can be discerned from GPR anomalies in
profiles 3, 5, and 6. At the locations along GPR profile 6 where
the profile crosses House H2 and House H3, the valid radar
anomaly cannot be found. This further supports the inference,
from the fact that related magnetic anomalies are absent at the
same locations, that the wall foundations are seriously damaged.

2015 European Association of Geoscientists & Engineers, Near Surface Geophysics, 2015, 13, 477-484

GPR prospecting of remains at Qocho City


GPR profiles after migration processing and interpretation results
from GPR1 to GPR6. Electromagnetic wave velocity of
0.12m/ns is determined by curve
fitting diffraction hyperbola
marked on GPR profiles 2, 4, 5,
and 6 (Fig. 7). The white rectangles indicate the main radar
anomalies. The expected locations for the GPR anomalies
based on the magnetic survey and
archaeological document are
marked above each profile.
Anomaly in profile 1 is interpreted as a temple base. Anomalies in
profiles 2 and 4 are interpreted as
pits. Anomalies in profiles 3, 5,
and 6 are interpreted as house
wall foundations.


Magnetic gradient and GPR methods have been successfully
used in detection of earthen remains in Qocho City site in China.
Magnetic gradient provides the horizontal layout information of
the earthen remains with high efficiency. Compared with magnetic gradient method, GPR has higher resolution for details of
the structures and provides depth information of the earthen
structures. The validity of magnetic gradient and GPR methods
has been verified by comparison between partial results of both
methods and a historical archaeological document from Stein.
The experiment provides application scheme for magnetic
gradient and GPR in detecting earthen structures for further
investigation in Qocho City site. Data acquisition, processing,

and interpretation strategies used in the experiment can be used

for a larger detection in Qocho City site because of the same
archaeological context. Further, for archaeologists, the experiment results provide a significant help in planning excavation
We conclude that magnetic gradient and GPR technologies
offer a useful and non-destructive means to survey other areas of
the Qocho City site to discover other buried earthen ruins
because of the magnetic mineral content of the building materials used in the citys construction and the dry environment. The
urgent need for such surveys is evidenced by the appearance of
many buried remains in previous excavation work at Qocho City
site. Moreover, the application results of magnetic gradient and

2015 European Association of Geoscientists & Engineers, Near Surface Geophysics, 2015, 13, 477-484


Z. Shi et al.

GPR methods also show that they are effective tools for the
detection of earthen remains in a dry environment.
This geophysical survey was funded by Xinjiang Province
Cultural Relics Bureau of China (Grant 12-581250-003),
,National Social Science Fund Project (Grant 13&ZD192),
National Natural Science Fund Project (Grant 41104072) and
Culture Relics Preservation Technology Project of Zhejiang
Province (Grant 2011008). The authors would like to thank
Archaeology and Culture Relics Institute of Xinjiang Province
for providing archaeological excavation results. They would also
like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their comments
that contributed to the improvement of the manuscript.
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