In a remote corner of northwest China, a recently excavated 3,000-year-old sun altar offers clues to how the region's tribal cultures practiced religion thousands of years ago.
The ruins were discovered in 1993, in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, but were not excavated until last year. Archaeologists can now confirm their initial suspicions that the site was used as a sun altar during the Bronze Age.
Nomads once dominated this grassland region, which sits in between Kazakhstan and Mongolia. While similar sun altars had been previously found in the east, the complex in Xinjiang is unique to the region.
The altar itself is comprised of three layered circles of stone. The outer diameter of the largest circle is just over 328 feet long, and archaeologists believe this suggests people and horses would have been used to haul the stones from miles away.
Archaeologists believe the find is significant because it suggests a strong cultural link between nomadic regions and ancient Chinese ruling dynasties.
"This proves that central plain culture had already long reached the foot of Mount Tianshan, in the Bayanbulak Grassland, the choke point of the Silk Road," said Liu Chuanming, one of the archaeologists studying the ruins, in CCTV video.
The Silk Road rose to prominence roughly 100 years before the first century during China's Han Dynasty, when it was established by Chinese diplomat Zhang Quian. The road, which lasted until the 15th century, famously spread trade, economy, and culture.
Sun worship was a common practice among many cultures that existed during this period.
"Since ancient times all civilizations on the continent of Eurasia used circle shapes to represent the sun. Mongolian yurts have the same structure as the altar," archaeologist Wu Xinhua commented in the video.
The video shows the inside of a traditional Mongolian yurt. Wu explained that the ceiling's three tresses represent sky, light, and sun worship.
He also noted the similarities to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, which is characterized by layered, circular floors. The Beijing temple is now regarded as belonging to the Taoist religion, however the time in which it was constructed suggests it was originally used for pre-Taoist heaven and sun worship.
Heaven worship is considered one of China's oldest forms of religion, and mounds were frequently used for elaborate ceremonies and non-human sacrifices. The exact purpose of the sun altar in Xinjiang, however, has yet to be identified. Sun worship was also common among civilizations in Africa and Indo-European regions.
Archaeologists will continue excavating the sun altar in Xinjiang in an effort to uncover more history of the ancient Silk Road.