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Archaeology on Major Construction Projects
The half century or so since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 has seen unprecedented economic development. And hand in hand with the major construction projects have gone tremendous achievements in archaeological fieldwork. Historic treasures that might have been lost have instead been saved for future generations.

1955 saw a major project to harness the Huaihe River. It was accompanied by the discovery of the burial of Marquis Cai. Dating back to the later years of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), the tomb turned out to be a treasure trove of ancient bronze-ware. It was to add much to the body of knowledge on the history and culture of the remote days of the Dukedom of Cai.

Alongside the construction of the Sanmen Gorge Reservoir on the Yellow River, archaeologists excavated the Shangcunling site in Sanmenxia city, Henan Province between 1956 and 1957. Their find of a burial ground from the time of the Dukedom of Guo in the early years of the Spring and Autumn Period helped unveil the long-standing mysteries of this ancient kingdom.

Over 30 years' of archaeological surveys and excavations in the Danjiangkou Reservoir area in Hubei Province have produced a wealth of important finds. The area has yielded 23 ancient cultural sites and some 200 tombs. There were finds of fossilized dinosaur eggs over 60 million years old and the sensational Paleolithic Yunxian skull dating back allegedly 800,000 years.

Other discoveries have included a major graveyard used by the nobility of the State of Chu in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), an imperial clan cemetery of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and a major complex of buildings from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in Mt. Wudang. These finds have resulted in many academic publications such as The Xiawanggang Site in Xichuan County, Henan Province, Graves of the Spring and Autumn Period at Xiasi Site in Xichuang County, Henan Province and The Yunxian Man. One particular success has been the re-location of a stone built palace from the Yongle era of the Ming Dynasty in Mt. Wudang to a higher site.

The discovery of a number of important sites was associated with the construction of the Xiaolangdi Reservoir on the Yellow River in the 1980s. These included the ancient city of Yuanqu in Shanxi Province. This was only the fifth townsite of the early Shang Dynasty (about 16th-11th centuries BC) ever to be found in China. Then there were Neolithic settlement sites in Bancun, Zhouli and Yandong, all in Henan Province. Here the detailed investigations were to mark a change in emphasis away from a more traditional archaeology based on classifying artifacts according to their shape and the levels at which they were unearthed in favor of a reconstruction of primitive settlement patterns.

2001 was a good year for archaeological discoveries linked to modern building works:

  • Major construction works in Henan Province produced the foundations of a palace and extensive rammed earth ruins belonging to Shangyang the ancient capital of the Dukedom of Guo.

  • Digs at sites dated from the Later Tang (923-936) in the time of the Five Dynasties (907-960), through to the Qing (1644-1911) came as the result of site excavation works covering some 1,900 square meters in Shijiazhuang city, Hebei Province.

  • At a construction site in Chengdu city, Sichuan Province, the workers were amazed to find themselves uncovering countless ivory, stone, jade and bronze artifacts. Nine months of careful archaeology were to provide a glimpse into the life and times of the inhabitants of the ancient city of Jinsha. According to the historians, some 3,000 years ago Jinsha may have been the political and cultural center of the State of Shu, a regional kingdom on southwest China's Chengdu Plain. The discovery ranked among China's top ten archaeological finds for that year.

  • In Xingtai city, Hebei Province pieces of pottery and bronze farm implements from Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) burials, shed new light on the development of agriculture and pottery firing techniques of that period.

    The following year, 2002 was to bring further discoveries:

  • Tombs from the Warring States Period with their delicate bronze mirrors and fine examples of the ceremonial jade bi (that carved Chinese discus with its pierced center, so often used as a symbol of power in antiquity) together with copper seals and gilt iron buckles.

  • At the beginning of the year, when the civil engineers started work on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the archaeologists got on track too. Following the route of what will be world's highest and longest railroad, they carried out a three month survey on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. They found microlithic artifacts between 10,000 and 30,000 years old and a group of 1,000 year old graves. The discoveries are expected to provide a significant missing link in the understanding of that ancient crescent of emerging cultural development that once ran all the way from Hailar in Inner Mongolia to Nyalam in Tibet.

  • In April a project to extend Exhibition Hall Road in Changsha city, Hunan Province was to result in the discovery of the largest Chu grave ever found in the area. The rich find of over 100 ancient artifacts included jade, bronze and pottery relics together with lacquer-ware worked on both bamboo and wood. Most strikingly of all the finds was a bronze spear. The surface of the bronze is embellished with a diamond pattern virtually identical to previous finds from the Wu and Yue. These ancient states were in the region of present day Zhejiang, Jiangsu and southern Shandong provinces. The new find demonstrates that this remarkable alloying technology was widely known as early as 2,500 years ago.

  • In July during the construction of the Heluo Center Square in Luoyang city, Henan Province no fewer than 279 Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC) graves were discovered together with 10 chariot pits. So far on this 6,000 square meter site 19 small tombs have been excavated together with two aristocratic burials each with a passage leading to the coffin chamber. A chariot pit on a truly grand scale has also been excavated. At over 40 meters long and 5.6 meters wide it is the largest ever found in this ancient capital. The finds are of significant value to the study of the burial customs of the period.

  • Also in July 2002, road construction workers found a Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25) tomb in Lianyungang city, Jiangsu Province. For 2,000 years it had been the unseen resting-place of what would become only the third Han Dynasty mummy ever to come to light. The two previous finds were in Changsha, Hunan Province and Jingzhou, Hubei Province. These were both south of the Yangtze, but the new mummy is to the north of the demarcating line of the river adding to the air of mystery that surrounds the mummification practices of ancient China.

    Over the years archaeology has often benefited from being closely coordinated with construction works. Other good examples from the 1980s and 1990s are the well known excavations of Han graves at Mawangdui in Changsha, Hunan, the Western Han tomb of King Nanyue in Guangzhou, Guangdong and the ruins of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) city gate in Beijing.

    Since work began on the Three Gorges area on the Yangtze River it has attracted the attention of the world as the world's largest hydropower project. Now the work of heritage protection running alongside construction is also attracting worldwide interest in its own right as it too has turned out to be the biggest ever of its kind.

    By June 10, 2003 the water level in the Three Gorges Reservoir had risen on schedule from its downstream starting level of 66 meters above sea level to the 135 meter mark. Back in June 2000, the State Council's Three Gorges Project Construction Committee had approved a massive rescue operation to save the important archaeological sites lying below the 135 meter level.

    Over the past five years, at some 120 sites, nearly 100 archaeological teams drawn from over 20 provinces and cities in China have taken on the Herculean task of covering a tract of land more than 660 km long before it disappeared below the waters of the reservoir. An area of some 5 million square meters has been investigated and of this, more than 1 million square meters have been excavated. The work has saved some 6,000 precious relics and another 50,000 artifacts of a more commonplace nature for the benefit of future generations.

    Discoveries of several Old Stone Age sites at Gaojiazhen and Yandunbao in 1999 pushed back the known dates of Paleolithic culture at the Three Gorges from 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.

    Recent work has also revealed more than 80 settlement sites established around 5,000 years ago together with early Neolithic remains at the Yuxi site in Fengdu County, Chongqing Municipality, which date back some 7,000 years or so.

    At the Shaopengzui site in Zhongxian County, Chongqing Municipality, archaeologists found artifacts attributable to the Daxi, Qujialing and Shijiahe cultures. These had once been widely distributed over Hubei and Hunan provinces. The finds demonstrate that the prehistoric inhabitants of the Three Gorges area had already carved out a cultural corridor with links to other ancient peoples spread along the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys.

    The now long-gone Ba people were an ethnic group living in the Three Gorges area during the times of the Xia (c.21st-16th centuries BC), Shang (c.16th-11th centuries BC) and Zhou (c.1100-221 BC) dynasties. The latest archaeological findings from over 100 relic-sites and tombs left by the Ba have revealed an uninterrupted cultural sequence stretching from the Shang down to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). The door has now been opened for some serious research into the mysterious Ba Culture.

    Other important discoveries in the Three Gorges reservoir area have included:

  • Shang and Zhou city sites in Wuling Town, Wanzhou County, Chongqing Municipality.

  • Eastern Zhou buildings at the narrows of the Xiling Gorge.

  • Western Han bamboo writing slips unearthed at the Jiuxianping site in Yunyang County, Chongqing Municipality.

  • Han Dynasty (206 BC-220) stone reliefs which served to decorate ancient tombs at the Mafentuo site in Yunyang County, Chongqing Municipality.

  • Han stone statues of the Buddha at Caofanggou site in Wanzhou County, Chongqing Municipality.

  • Han stone carvings, which stood in front of the temples and tombs at the Wuyang site in Zhongxian County, Chongqing Municipality.

  • Chinese chessmen from the Han and from the Wei (220-265) which followed, at the Laoguanqiu site in Wanzhou County, Chongqing Municipality.

  • A city site of the Song (960-1279) in Badong County, Hubei Province.

  • Another Song city site in Fengjie County, Chongqing Municipality.

    Thus like so many other major construction projects in China, the mighty Three Gorges Project has been accompanied by important archaeological discoveries. The finds have furnished a wealth of evidence about long gone environmental changes and the founding of ancient civilizations in an area now slipping beneath the rising waters.

    (China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, July 1, 2003)

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