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Scientific Advances in Archaeology

Modern scientific methods have been pushing back the boundaries of archaeology in China. As early as the 1950s, foreign researchers were turning to carbon-14 dating. China's first radiocarbon laboratory was built in 1965 for the Institute of Archaeology operating under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The years that followed would see the number of such facilities mushroom nationwide.


Carbon-dating occupies an indispensable place in China's prehistoric archaeology and has a key role to play in the study of artifacts left by ancient peoples. Without this technique we would know so much less about the remote and mysterious world of the "Three Dynasties" of the Xia (c.2100-1600 BC), Shang (c.1600-1100 BC) and Zhou dynasties (c.1100-256 BC).


Other new techniques which can look even further back in time have been introduced one after another including thermoluminescence, paleogeomagnetism, fossil dating based on fluorine content or the decay of uranium 235, investigation using the accelerator mass spectrometer and so on.


Deployed alongside traditional archaeological, these dating methods not only bring increased accuracy but they do so without damaging the often fragile cultural relics.


Digital technology has also been brought into play to support field excavation. For instance, ICT (Information and Communications Technology) has been harnessed to assist in the work of heritage protection in the Yangtze's Three Gorges area. This has greatly reduced both the cost and the time necessary for the fieldwork and has helped find dozens of previously undiscovered ancient tombs in the reservoir area.


Aerial photography has made it possible for archaeologists to look down on the layout of an ancient city or the arrangement of the graves in an ancient burial ground.


It was in the 1960s that Chinese experts first used aerial photography in the archaeological rescue operations in the Sanmen Gorge reservoir area on the Yellow River. Since then it has been successfully employed in the excavation of the 2,400-year-old tomb of Marquis Yi of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) in Hubei Province and also in that of the 700-year-old Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) Shangdu city site in Inner Mongolia.


Archaeology acquired remote sensing techniques back in the 1970s. Since the early 1980s a number of remote sensing facilities have been established in China. The resulting finds have included foundations and graves of the Yin Dynasty (the later period of the Shang Dynasty) in Yinxu located in Anyang City, Henan Province. The technique has also helped detect evidence of the neolithic Hongshan culture. It revealed the Heicheng city site of the Tangut Dynasty (1038-1227) and the Great Wall of the Kin Dynasty (1115-1234). These examples are all situated in Inner Mongolia.


In fact, careful analysis of remote sensing satellite images can be credited with many important discoveries across China including:


l         over 12,000 Paleolithic sites in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River


l         2,000-year-old remains of the Jingjue Kingdom in the hinterland of the Taklamakan Desert


l         traces of the Grand Canal built by Emperor Yang (560-618) of the Sui Dynasty


l         the 1,000 kilometer Great Wall constructed by Genghis Khan (1162-1227), who founded the vast Mongol empire of the Middle Ages


Underwater archaeology began in China in the late 1980s. Since then, underwater excavations have been carried out in the sea off Guangdong, Fujian and Liaoning provinces.


Fuxian Lake in Yuxi City, Yunnan Province is China's second deepest inland lake. Thanks to demanding underwater survey work between April and June 2001, archaeologists have made some remarkable discoveries there. They found an ancient city with an area of 2.4 square kilometers that had lain hidden at the bottom of the lake for over 1,750 years.


2002 was the 340th anniversary of the recovery of Taiwan from the Dutch colonialists. This was achieved by Cheng Ch'eng-kung (1624-1662), a national hero of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. As part of the commemorative activities, archaeologists salvaged a number of bronze and iron guns, ammunition, mines and pieces of porcelain from Cheng's ships sunk in the waters around Dongshan Island in Fujian Province.


Fieldwork in the Qin Shihuang Mausoleum is a good example of a multidisciplinary approach to archaeology. Located in Xi'an in Shaanxi Province this massive mausoleum is the tomb of Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC) the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty.


During the 1970s and 1980s remote sensing probed the mysteries of his burial. It had lain undisturbed for over 2,000 years. In the 1980s aerial photography established the location of the double walls of the mausoleum and the disposition of the famous formations of terra cotta warriors and horses.


Researchers turned to an interdisciplinary approach when excavating the terra cotta warriors and horses. For example they combined geological methods with digital technology to collect and process data on the air and soil. These data have contributed to research into the changing climate and environment from the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) through to the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han Dynasties (206 BC-AD 220).


Furthermore, through scientific analysis of the different proportions of copper, tin and lead in the bronze weapons excavated from the mausoleum, researchers have gained new insights into the secrets of the bronze smelting, casting and corrosion resistance technologies employed in the far off days of the Qin Dynasty.


(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, June 11, 2003)

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