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Archaeological Find Strikes New Chord

Zou Yijun still remembers the day when two young men turned up at his office with two bits of pottery.

The pieces led local archaeologists to a treasure trove of over 2,000 burial objects, including sets of jade and primitive porcelain ware.

And further studies have left experts convinced they have stumbled upon a collection of one of the best and most complete sets of musical instruments from the State of Yue of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

The findings may help rewrite part the ancient history of not only this region, but also that of porcelain making and music.

"Altogether the findings mark the most important archaeological discovery about the State of Yue to date," Li Boqian, professor of archaeology at Peking University, told China Daily.

It was four years ago, a few days before Spring Festival in 2001 that two young men approached Zou and asked if he was interested in buying the two pieces.

Zou, director of the Xishan District Office of Cultural Heritage in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, was amazed when he saw them.

"They seemed to be ancient musical instruments," recalled Zou, who studied history at Nanjing University. "The mud on them was still wet, so I was sure they'd just been dug up."

Zou asked more questions and the two men revealed the location of the find and Zou and his colleagues immediately went to the spot. To their delight they found other broken pieces of ancient pottery.

Following standard procedures, Zou, along with a team from the Archaeology Institute of Nanjing Museum, began an official excavation of the site, destined to become a furniture mall.

The mall was part of a proposed development zone by the local Hongshan Township.

Surprising findings

Excavation work began two years after the initial findings and for the next 24 months, Zhang Min, director of archaeology from the Nanjing Museum, and his colleagues worked at the site, which eventually stretched to 24 square kilometres.

Fifteen tomb mounds, from which the researchers excavated seven tombs were discovered. From the differences in size and the numbers of funereal objects, researchers concluded that the tomb owners probably came from five levels of the social strata.

"There were several surprises," Zou told the local Jiangnan Evening News.

Especially when they began work on what they believed to be the largest tomb of all, recalled Zhang Min.

They found a hole as big as a circular table in the largest tomb, indicating its owner might have held supreme power during the ancient State of Yue. As they dug deeper, the hole caved in to become even bigger.

They became disheartened, believing it had already been ransacked by tomb raiders. But, when they finally reached the tomb proper, they found it had three chambers. The tomb raiders had taken away objects from the middle chamber, but left the front and rear ones intact.

From this largest tomb alone, researchers unearthed some 1,100 relics, including complete sets of jade and porcelain ceremonial ware and musical instruments such as porcelain chimes.

Four circular-shaped pottery pieces bore red, blue and white glazes. Each had eight sculpted snakes circling the body, with one holding the end of another's tail in its mouth.

The researchers were particularly thrilled by the finely-sculptured snakes on quite a number of the relics, such as on the lid of a porcelain container or on the round porcelain base of the musical bells.

This further confirmed the fact that the State of Yue worshipped the snake and had made it its emblem.

Music historians, meanwhile, were ecstatic at the discovery of what they believed to be a long lost musical instrument called a fou, an ancient percussion instrument made of clay.

To the uninitiated, the three glazed porcelain pieces, each with three feet on the base, could easily be taken for ordinary water containers. They have a pair of bas-relief sculptures of lizards crawling around the rim of each, while the body also bears engravings of a pair of snakes, each with a pair of large ears.

But given they were found with other known ancient instruments, Professor Wang Zichu, from the Chinese Music Research Institute in Beijing, told CCTV they were in fact the percussion instrument, fou, featured in "The Records of the Historian" by Sima Qian, the great Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) chronicler.

Professor Li Boqian said initial studies revealed that the whole tomb site probably dates back to the early years of the State of Yue, of which King Goujian took the throne in 496 BC.

In history, the State of Yue was small, occupying the area of what is now Jiangsu and part of Zhejiang, and existed for little more than 200 years.

Although Yue lasted just two centuries, Goujian is one of the best known characters in Chinese history, immortalized not only for his legendary bronze sword, but also for the tenacity that enabled him to defeat countless enemies.

According to historic annals, the second year after Goujian was crowned, his army was defeated by the neighbouring State of Wu and he was forced to surrender and became enslaved for several years.

Goujian endured the hardships and later returned to his homeland where he resumed his rule. In 478 BC, he led his army against the State of Wu and overthrew its king who was forced to commit suicide.

A few years ago, archaeologists found the tomb of Goujian's father in Yinshan, Zhejiang Province.

"But it had been robbed and was almost empty," said Professor Li.

Researchers are currently engaged in extensive studies, on several fronts, on the finds from the Wuxi tomb.

Scientists are analyzing the components of the porcelain ware and once known, their findings could turn the tables on existing orthodoxy concerning the history of porcelain making in China.

Further studies

For his part, Professor Li categorizes the relics as primitive porcelain as they still appear grey. "But the glaze was evenly applied and the temperature for firing was very high," he explained.

Primitive porcelain appeared in ancient China during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC).

However, except for a very few pieces found in the south, such porcelain wares had all but disappeared by the Han Dynasty.

"No one knows why the technology was almost abandoned," said Li.

And it was not until the 5th century that porcelain-making resumed and progressed, reaching its zenith during the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties.

Meanwhile, musicologists are trying to reassemble the recovered instruments and make them "sing" again.

Even biologists have got in on the act. They are engaged in examining various pollen specimens found at the site to gain an insight into the ecological environment of the area more than 2,000 years ago.

(China Daily April 7, 2005)

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