Learning from Nature: Nature-based Conservation of Earthen Sites in Drylands

This project aims to evaluate nature-based conservation solutions for rammed earthen sites in the cool desert environment of northwest China.

Earthen sites pose many conservation challenges. In northwest China many of the important Silk Road sites contain large amounts of earthen remains (usually rammed earth with some mud brick). The region is also home to a large range of important ancient sites largely constructed of rammed earth that are suffering from rapid deterioration in response to climatic factors (water, wind and salt).

Researchers from the University of Lanzhou, Northwestern University in X'ian and the Dunhuang Academy have many years of scientific experience on the deterioration and conservation of these sites. They have performed trails of various conservation treatments with some success, including consolidation with potassium silicate, grouting and wooden bolts, and the addition of rammed earth buttresses. However, there is an urgent need to develop further methods to aid conservation of these valuable sites before further losses occur.

Recently, these researchers began working in collaboration with the GCI and University of Oxford to explore novel, nature-based approaches to conservation. Nature-based solutions to conserving ruined sites have been evaluated in the United Kingdom and other temperate countries, as well as in arid climates such as at Merv in Turkmenistan and Gordian in Turkey. Both dryland-adapted plants and biological soil crusts may be useful agents of conservation in northwest China and deserve more investigation.


Identify any microbial surface biocrusts and find out whether they are biodeteriorative or not and to investigate the possibility of encouraging surface biocrust growth on wall faces as a conservation strategy

Identify suitable plants for soft capping on wall heads and to investigate whether soft capping could help manage damaging runoff and contribute to strengthening ruined walls.

Investigate other natural and nature-inspired products, for example, geotextiles.


Investigate the microclimate of an earthen site more fully and relate it to patterns of deterioration using surveys in the field.

Investigate whether site-based approaches to modify damaging runoff, wind and salts are feasible (e.g. windbreaks, drainage) using modelling and experimentation.

Investigate the robustness of site-based approaches in the face of future environmental change and multiple risks using modelling

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Page updated: October 2017