Reputed to be the world’s largest hydro-electric project, the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges Dam has attracted the attention of archaeological experts for protection and classification of the project area’s prehistoric cultural artifacts. Many thousands of items from prehistory, that include pottery, laquerware and bronzeware, have been recorded in the area, giving evidence of a cultural sequence of habitation that began in the Old Stone Age, a Paleolithic period nearly 2 million years ago. But, comes June 2003, the Three Gorges will be flooded to fill a hydro-electric reservoir and rise to 135 meters above sea level.
What interest archaeologists around the world is the fact that within the flood area there are 1,074 historical sites that will disappear beneath the waterline. In response to the incredulous concern this raised around the world, the State Council established a Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, to oversee a huge salvage operation, begun in June 2000, to record and preserve artifacts of immense historical importance. The State Council allocated 1 billion yuan (approximately US$125 million) to the project, which aims to be complete by 2009 when the Three Gorge Dam is scheduled to go into operation and the area flooded.
The archaeological aims of the salvage project are, in practical terms, extraordinary. Some 100 archaeological teams from more than 20 provinces and cities are working at over 120 site-specific digs in the massive 660-kilometer area.
To date, work below the 135-meter waterline is near completion; a total excavation area of over 1 million square meters has produced 6,000 relics of significance. The total area explored, so far, has been an extraordinary 5 million square meters. As archaeological evidence requires the lifting of earth and matter in a systematic dating sequence, or that which is older always being dug from beneath, the archaeologists at the Yangtze site are now working on an older prehistory below the 175-meter waterline. Some of the relics and endangered sites below this level include the 1,700-year-old Zhang Fei Temple, situated on the southern bank of the river, in Yunyang, and constructed in honor of General Zhang Fei within the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). Also found is Shibao Village, what archaeologists have suggested being one of the most complex wooden structures ever recorded, belonging to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
The rich significance of the Yangtze River area, and its sites, relics and finds, has allowed archaeologists to newly-identify it as a birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization. An excavation in 1999, at Gaojiazhen and Yandunbao, was to reposition the Chinese Paleolithic in the Three Gorges area by an extra 50,000 to 100,000 years. The Neolithic period (10,000 BP-2,000 BC) in the Ba and Shu area unearthed remains dating to around 7,000 BC, while at least 80 settlement sites in this area, remaining unearthed, have dated a protohistoric sequence, or the period before written records but after written identifications existing elsewhere, to around 5,000 year BP.
Archaeologists have also found evidence of Daxi, Qujialing and Shijiahe culture sites in Zhongxian County, giving life to the belief that in prehistory, the Three Gorges linked ancient cultures along the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys.
An extinct Ba ethnicity, living in the area between the Xia (2100-1600 BC) and Shang (1600-1100 BC) dynasties up to the Zhou Dynasty (1100-221 BC) was relatively unknown until archaeologists found remains that indicated environmental change and the formation of this significant part of ancient Chinese civilization in the area. Relics and remnants of ancient Ba culture, from over 100 sites, have provided evidence of a sequence of cultural activity from the Shang Dynasty to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). This has included bronze ware, architecture and smelting evidence. Kilns found in the excavation at sites in Shuangyantang in Wushan County, Shaopengzui in Zhongxian County and Lijiaba in Yunyang County have added further proof of some of the many miracles of the extinct Ba culture.
The Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties have also been represented. City settlement sites, graves, buildings, kilns and remains of agricultural activity have produced evidence of changes in environmental conditions as well as the basic elements of these ancient times. Artifacts have included Han Dynasty stone reliefs used in the decoration of tombs and bamboo slips used for writing on as well as statues of Buddha, Chinese chessmen and stone carvings that decorated exteriors of tombs and temples. The collection has brought significant evidence to building a picture of ancient Chinese life in this period. Architecture from the Shang and Zhou dynasties has also featured in discoveries at Wanzhou, while the Chongqing Municipality and city sites of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) found in Badong County and Fengjie County have contributed to further knowledge of ancient Chinese times.
In an attempt to preserve this vital and evocative part of the history and prehistory of the Three Gorges cultural memory, advanced techniques have been used. These include thermo luminescence (TL), accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), and energy-dispersive X-ray fluorescence. Digital technology has been used to build virtual models of the excavation area and to apply the work of the various technologies to the management of archaeological data and information collection and sharing.
A protection scheme of particular importance is the Baiheliang or White Crane Ridge low-water calligraphy monument. Claimed by UNESCO as the only well-preserved “ancient hydrologic station”, this 1600-meter-long flat rock girder, lying to the west of Fuling City, bares inscriptions that have been dated back 1,200 years and show its use as an ancient hydrometer for measuring water levels in the river. Experts from the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have applied resilient ethyl silicate to reinforce the stone and used polyester adhesive fabric to protect it from further erosion. A 3-D model has provided the scientists with the opportunity to test preservation techniques and amongst proposals, inspired by the idea of pressure-free containers, experts have suggested an underwater museum to preserve the monument, which has been approved and implemented.
While the work continues in the Yangtze Three Gorges area, archaeologists and concerned lovers of Chinese history await further developments from this rich and evocative source of ancient civilization.
(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, February 17, 2003)