News FocusProfile: Frédérique Darragon

Unraveling a Riddle in Plain Sight

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Science  07 May 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5979, pp. 685-687
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5979.685

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Amateur archaeologist Frédérique Darragon has spent 12 years documenting hundreds of mysterious towers in Southwest China—and winning over skeptical academics. The clusters of towers on mountain slopes may have been status symbols in a game of one-upmanship among wealthy merchants, Darragon says, while lone towers in river valleys likely served as lookouts or way stations on the southwestern Silk Road. Some towers may have held religious meaning. And their star-shaped design may help withstand shaking in a region prone to strong earthquakes. Over the past decade, Darragon has had fragments of wood beams from several dozen towers radiocarbon-dated, yielding approximate ages ranging from 300 to 1700 years old. Drawing on Darragon's work, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage of China is expected to soon nominate dozens of the more imposing structures to UNESCO's World Heritage list. But a UNESCO listing may not come in time for a clutch of towers near Danba, in western Sichuan, that are imperiled by the construction of a hydropower dam.