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Durham University

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Ms Jiajing Mo

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Academic Biography

I completed my BA in Archaeology at Nanjing University between 2008 and 2012 before being awarded a Master’s degree in Archaeology at Peking University (2012-2015). Before I started my research postgraduate program at Durham in 2018, I worked as an academic editor and translator.

I have long been fascinated by the archaeology of religion, and its material evidence; leading to my initial study of the introduction and spread of Buddhism across China, with particular focus on the caves constructed in the 5th-6th century CE.

Joining Durham allowed me to shift this interest directly to the homeland of early Buddhism within South Asia. Initially registered as an MPhil research student, and now upgraded to PHD status, my study focuses on the archaeology and architecture of Nepal’s western Terai, a region rich in pilgrimage sites associated with the life of Buddha. I am also an active participant in fieldwork linked to Durham’s UNESCO Chair team, including working within the Japanese-Fund-in-Trust-for-UNESCO programme in Nepal, with colleagues from the Lumbini Development Trust and Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal.

Research Topic

Urban Transformation in Nepal’s Western Terai, 200-1000 CE


Nepal’s western Terai in its post-Kushan period (ca. 200-1000 CE) is often described as desolate in the textual narrative derived from Chinese pilgrims’ records of fifth and seventh century CE. Archaeological survey in the past decades has also demonstrated centuries of prosperity which began to show signs of decline by the third century CE. This widely accepted picture of urban decay presents a rupture of hundreds of years before resurgence by the end of the first millennium CE represented by the cropping-up temple structures. Similar urban patterns have been observed in North India, especially the Gangetic plain, which has long been studied by historians and recently archaeologists. It is largely agreed that, while many early historic cities were eclipsed in this period, new urban settlements, more rooted in their regional context, came to the fore, a process in which the 'ceremonial' or 'ritual' centres played a significant role. The change in urban pattern is in fact part of a more extensive transition in which the classic societies of Indian subcontinent moved onto the medieval age. However, the debates so far are largely based on epigraphic and literary sources. The long-held text-based approach has limited the scope to macro structures with little understanding of how the urban process took place at site as well as regional level. The almost absence of archaeology, together with improperly published and insufficiently investigated post-Kushan remains, has hindered further study of the transition. Even though recent attempts have been made by archaeologists, the ill-established chronological sequence makes it difficult to contribute effectively.

In this sense, my research will be one of the pilot studies to explore the urban change and early medieval transition in archaeological record. With data from archaeological activities in western Terai, especially the project funded by Japan-Fund-in-Trust (JFiT), it will be able to identify the changing urban pattern in 200-1000 CE at both site and regional level, which is made possible with the scientifically-dated and tightened chronology of post-Kushan materials derived from recent excavation at Tilaurakot, and reveal how political, economic and religious factors played their part in the process.

In summary, by integrating the data from recent archaeological surveys, my research is aimed to identify and interpret the urban change of Nepal’s western Terai between 200 and 1000 CE and associate it with Early Medieval transformation that took place across South Asia. To achieve this, six objectives are set out as below:

Objective 1: to review current theories explaining patterns of urban collapse and societal transformation in the Gangetic Plain between 200 and 1000 CE.

Objective 2: to present and evaluated the textual narratives associated with Nepal’s Western Terai between 200 and 1000 CE. 

Objective 3: to establish a tightly periodised archaeological chronology based on the data from recent surveys and develop methods to archaeologically trace the urban change at micro and macro levels between 200 and 1000 CE.

Objective 4: to analyse the archaeological materials at selected sites through the attribute-based approach and characterise their trajectories of urban development.

Objective 5: to analyse the spatial and temporal patterns of the urban change at a regional level and explicate the mechanism by identifying the economic, political and religious factors and how they were involved in the process.

Objective 6: to reconstruct the urban change by synthesising the textural and archaeological evidence and understand it in a broader context by relating it to the religious change and Early Medieval transformation.


‘Beyond the Text: Datang Xiyuji and Western Nepal Terai in Early Medieval Age’, The Early Medieval Archaeology Student Symposium (EMASS), April 2019

Other Academic Activities

Presentation on “Chinese Pilgrims’ Records and Nepal’s Western Terai” to the postgraduate students from Tribhuvan University and Lumbini Buddhist University, Nepal, Jan. 2019 & Jan. 2020

Participation in Cangdong Village Project led by Stanford Archaeology Center at Stanford University, December 2017

Co-organisation of the seminar “Longmen Cave: Buddhist Art and Archaeology” at Renmin University of China, November 25, 2016

Co-organisation of the conference “From Pingcheng to Luoyang: Studies on Gongxian Cave”, Gongyi, Henan Province, China, October 17-18, 2014

Participation in the Chinese Historical Archaeology Reading Group based at Renmin University and Peking University, 2013-14

Participation in the Innovation Training Programme of Nanjing University, 2011

Selected Grants/Awards

  • 1st Class Postgraduate Scholarship from Peking University, 2012
  • 2nd Prize in Basic Sciences Forum at Nanjing University, 2011
  • National Scholarship from the Ministry of Education of China, 2010

Research Groups

Department of Archaeology

Is supervised by