Fieldwork and dedication still the foundation of Chinese archaeology
Zhu Yanshi (third from left), a researcher with the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, leads a project studying the ancient Silk Road through excavations in Mingtepa ancient city ruins in Uzbekistan in 2017. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
In 1957, 20-year-old Li Bo-qian, a sophomore undergraduate at the school of history at Peking University, had to choose a specific direction for his studies. Hearing that archaeologists have the chance to travel a lot, Li thought it would be fun to pick that subject.
Yet, he did not expect to be glued to it for a lifetime.
“It became my destiny,” the 82-year-old told China Daily. “Much emphasis was placed on archaeology even in the early years of New China when the country was still enduring tough times. Because of that, everyone (in archaeological circles) was eager to make a contribution using the knowledge they had gained at university.”
Halted by the civil war, Chinese archaeology resumed shortly after the founding of New China in 1949. In 1950, the country’s first archaeological excavation took place in Huixian county, Central China’s Henan province.
“It just took around 10 people — that was how everything got started,” Li recalled.
In 1952, Peking University became the first Chinese educational institution to nurture students of archaeology major.
Chen Xingcan, head of Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said majors in archaeology and cultural heritage conservation are now offered by over 100 Chinese universities. Currently, more than 60 institutions and 2,000 individuals in China hold licenses to lead archaeological excavations.
“Large-scale urbanization and the construction of infrastructure from the 1990s presented new challenges in terms of the conservation of heritage sites,” Chen said. “The demand for archaeological research increased, and brought us many new opportunities.”
China’s cultural relic protection laws stipulate that archaeological investigation must be undertaken before construction can begin on any new major infrastructure project.
During the early 1980s, about 100 archaeological surveys were undertaken every year, and this number has risen to nearly 1,000 now, according to Wang Wei, director of the Society of Chinese Archaeology.
In 1928, the discovery of the Yinxu Ruins, the remains of a capital city that existed during the latter part of the Shang Dynasty (c.16th century-11th century BC) in Henan, lifted a shroud that hung over Chinese archaeology and also helped the Shang Dynasty to emerge from legend into actual history due to the abundant findings of oracle bones — China’s earliest known form of written characters.
“Unlike many other ancient civilizations, China had a particular tradition of keeping detailed records of history throughout ancient times,” Li said.
Records of the Grand Historian, or Shiji, compiled by Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) historian Sima Qian, remains a monumental reference work for archaeological studies.
A group photo at the site of New China’s first archaeological excavation, undertaken in 1950 in Huixian county, Henan province. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
According to the book, the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century-16th century BC), the first central kingdom with a vast land in China, once set its capital in an area around today’s Luoyang in Henan. Following this clue, archaeologists located the Erlitou relic site in Luoyang in 1959. As the biggest capital city ruins of its time in East Asia, it is widely considered in Chinese academia as the location of the Xia capital, according to Wang.
“However, old theories also once led people to form stereotypical views that the origins of Chinese civilization must lie in the Central China Plain,” Li said.
Nevertheless, a boom in the number of discoveries indicating early-stage civilizations over the following decades has gradually changed archaeologists’ minds. Ranging from the western bank of Liaohe River in Northeast China, throughout Central China to the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, these findings appeared like stars on a clear night all across the country.
Many brilliant discoveries unknown to history were revealed by the shovels of the archaeologists there.
For example, the 5,300-year-old archaeological ruins of Liangzhu city in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, famed for its gradual discovery of outstanding ceremonial jade pieces, the palatial city of a regional state, and a complex dam system — thought to be the world’s earliest — became China’s latest entries on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in July, signifying global recognition for the 5,000-year Chinese civilization, according to Liu Bin, director of the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.
Developments and techniques being used in land-based research on human settlements are being employed in other archaeological arenas in China, sometimes in ways that have not been seen elsewhere in the world. In 2007, a special water tank was used to salvage Nanhai One — a Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) shipwreck off the coast of Guangdong province — in order to move it to a museum laboratory for excavation from the mud and sand.
“Nowadays, archaeology students at Peking University have so much more to learn than we did,” Li said, smiling. “However, no matter how many high-tech methods are used in labs, fieldwork remains the foundation. An archaeologist still has to start by learning how to use a spade.”
Modern archaeology was introduced in China in the 1920s by Johan Gunnar Andersson, a Swedish geologist and archaeologist. He discovered Yangshao Neolithic Culture in Henan in 1921.
Some of the earliest Chinese archaeologists were trained overseas. For example, Xia Nai, the founder of archaeology in New China, got his PhD in Egyptology from the University of London.
“They always had a dream to lead archaeological teams to better see the world,” Chen recalled.
Chen said that following China’s reform and opening-up in the 1980s, cross-border academic exchanges in the field of archaeology have been frequent, and the past decade has witnessed many Chinese archaeologists realizing their predecessors’ dream of conducting research on foreign land.
Chinese archaeologists are currently overseeing excavations in more than 30 countries around the world.
Key Chinese archaeological finds since 1949
1958: Dingling Mausoleum, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Beijing
The first mausoleum of a Chinese emperor excavated in the country under an initiative led by archaeologists.
1959: Erlitou relic site, 1800-1500 BC, Yanshi, Henan province
The earliest discovery of the ruins of a Chinese capital city from a central kingdom.
1972: Mawangdui Tomb, Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), Changsha, Hunan province
The tomb of a high-ranking official and his wife that offered an abundance of funeral relics and the body of a mummified woman.
1974: Terracotta Warriors, Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), Xi’an, Shaanxi province
The “underground army” found in the mausoleum of Qinshihuang, the first Chinese emperor.
1978: Tomb of Marquis Yi of the Zeng vassal state, Warring States Period (475-221 BC), Suizhou, Hubei province
Discovery of the Zeng state, proof of which had never been found in existing historical documents, where an entire rack of exquisite bronze chime bells was unearthed.
1986: Fanshan cemetery at the Liangzhu archaeological ruins, around 3000 BC, Hangzhou, Zhejiang province
Discovery of more than 1,000 jade ritual pieces, including the famous “king of cong”.
1987: Shipwreck of Nanhai One, Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), Yangjiang, Guangdong province
The site where a heavily loaded ancient merchant ship sank was the first major underwater archaeological discovery made within Chinese waters.
1987: Cellar of Famen Buddhist Temple, Tang Dynasty (618-907), Baoji, Shaanxi province
Discovery of a treasure trove of Buddhist relics.
2002: Liye slips, Qin Dynasty, Xiangxi, Hunan province
The discovery of 36,000 wood and bamboo slips, government documents with 200,000 characters.
2012: Shimao relic site, around 2000 BC, Shenmu, Shaanxi province
The largest prehistoric city ruins ever found in China.
2015: Tomb of Marquis Haihun, Western Han Dynasty, Nanchang, Jiangxi province
Discovery of more than 10,000 cultural relics, related to one of the shortest-reigning monarchs in Chinese history.
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