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January 18, 2012

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Relics shed light on human history

THE top archeological discoveries of 2011 have been published and one expert says serious archeology is suffering because of rapid infrastructure development. Zhang Qian digs in.

Compared with 2010's spectacular findings of Cao Cao's tomb, dinosaur bones and an ancient shipwreck, 2011 seems to be a small year. But archeologists still notched up some remarkable discoveries contributing to the knowledge of human history.

"China's Top Six Archeological Discoveries in 2011" was recently released by China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

The list includes a Paleolithic site at Ulan Moron Town of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, a prehistoric settlement site near Horqin Left Middle Banner in Inner Mongolia, a cemetery of the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century-770 BC) at Suizhou City in Hubei Province, a mausoleum of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-23 AD) in Xuyi County in Jiangsu Province, a Western Han tomb in Dingtao County in Shandong Province and the Cham Grotto in Dinggye County of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

The academic and scientific value is the major standard for judging the list, says Liu Qingzhu, a researcher in the Archaeology Institute of CASS, who also comments online about each discovery.

All the discoveries help to fill in the blanks in the archeological map of China, says Chen Chun, professor of cultural heritage and museum studies at Shanghai Fudan University.

Accidental discoveries

For example, the discoveries in the Zhou Dynasty cemetery in Hubei help determine the time the "Zeng" state was established; the Western Han tomb in Shandong is the tomb of a duke of the highest rank so far discovered in that period; the Cham Grotto in Tibet helps explain the origins and development of Tibetan Buddhism.

Chen, who was contacted by Shanghai Daily, said the discoveries are significant but what's important is follow-up analysis and careful study, which takes time.

Professor Chen took the occasion of the list's publication to say that in general archeology in China today is taking a backseat to infrastructure development, adding that most discoveries nowadays are made accidentally in the course of construction. Archeologists are rushed, pressed for time and often unable to do a thorough job, he says. There's too much emphasis in finding treasure instead of contributing to knowledge.

The best known annual list is China's top 10, organized since 1990 by the Archaeological Society of China's Cultural Relic News; the 2011 list is not yet out.

The top six announced by CASS started in 2002.

Listing archeological discoveries these days focuses too much on what's sensational and precious, says Professor Chen.

Whether "precious and valuable" relics are discovered is sometimes given more weight than whether they help archeology march forward as a science, he says. "This may be a reason for or a result of the widely held but incorrect attitude among archeologists today who search for treasures rather than study a tomb."

It often takes years for reports on archeological finds to come out because it takes time to analyze items and answer historical questions using information from relics. Sometimes there is no report, only a list of items collected. Chen says he still hasn't seen the published report of a discovery made in the 1950s and one member of the team has already retired.

Rushed archeologists

"The disappointing reality in archeological is inevitable because of infrastructure that is being built everywhere," says Chen.

The skills needed to protect relic sites is immature in China and intentional excavation virtually stopped years ago, he says.

"Most of the excavations in recent years are accidental discoveries made in the course of infrastructure construction," he says.

Archeological teams rush between discovered sites and work like a construction team, he says. "They are often urged to finish the job quickly by construction workers who cannot wait to start their own work. They consider cultural relics nothing but possessions of the dead that burden the lives of the living and some secretly destroy relics to avoid wasting time for archeological excavation and preservation." Construction in Henan Province, considered the Yellow River cradle of Chinese culture, is a perfect example, he says.

By law, any ancient sites and relics discovered in the course of construction must be reported to the central government and work is halted until the discovery can be assessed. That costs time and money.

In theory archeologists can collect samples first and then give them careful study and analysis, says Chen. "But how can you expect a complete and thorough retrieval finished in such a hurry? Without time, how can you expect a valuable report? Without a valuable report, what's the difference between an archeologist and a grave robber?"

Comments on top six discoveries of 2011
1 Mausoleum of the Western Han Dynasty in Xuyi County, Jiangsu Province
The mausoleum containing many delicate relics replicates the life of the duke and his surroundings. Traces of cultural communication across regions are evident. This contributes to the study of history, culture and especially glass making in the Han Dynasty.
(Comment by Liu Qingzhu and Bai Yunxiang from the Archeology Institute of CASS)

2 Prehistoric settlement near Horqin Left Middle Banner in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region
It reflects social organization at the time; 97 bodies were discovered in one of 43 rooms. It contributes to study of society.
(Comment by Liu Qingzhu and Zhu Yanping from the Archeology Institute of CASS)

3 Cemetery of Western Zhou Dynasty in Suizhou City, Hubei Province
Most of the bronze carries inscriptions that provide guidance for study of the states in the Western Zhou Dynasty.
The numerous relics in the cemetery shed light on the life of royalty.
(Comment by Liu Qingzhu and Wang Wei from the Archeology Institute of CASS)

4 Western Han tomb in Dingtao County, Shandong Province
This is believed to be the luxurious tomb of the king of Dingtao, the father of Emperor Ai of the Western Han Dynasty. It is the highest-ranking Han Dynasty tomb discovered to date. Though relics were not recovered (all stolen by grave robbers), it is still a treasure and indicates luxury.
(Comment by Liu Qingzhu from the Archeology Institute of CASS)

5 Cham Grotto at Dinggye County of Tibet Autonomous Region
It helps enlarge the map of grottoes in China. The sculptures and fresco are valuable materials for the study of early Tibetan Buddhism.
(Comment by Li Yuqun from Archeology Institute of CASS)

6 Paleolithic site at Ulan Moron Town in the Inner Mongolia
A middle Paleolithic site, 40,000-70,000 years old, which is very rare in China.
Around 4,200 pieces of stoneware recovered, some reflecting Mousterian (style of flint tools) culture that prevailed Europe, West Asia, Central Asia and Northeast Africa 35,000-80,000 years ago.
The discovery helps document cultural exchange between China and the West in ancient times and contributes to study of the origins of modern Chinese people.
(Comment by Liu Qingzhu from the Archeology Institute of CASS and Gao Xing from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of CASS)


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