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Saving the Cultural Relics of the Three Gorges

The Three Gorges area on the Yangtze has long attracted international attention as the site of the world's biggest ever hydropower project. Now the eyes of the world are turning towards the massive rescue operation necessary to save the area’s many cultural relics before they are lost below the rising waters. The work of heritage protection is turning out to be the largest of its kind worldwide in its own right.

Literally thousands of pottery, lacquer-work and bronze-ware artifacts have been unearthed at the Three Gorges. They demonstrate an unbroken chain of cultural development stretching right back to those distant days of the Old Stone Age.


By June 2003 the waters will have crept up to 135 meters above sea level. Back in June 2000, the State Council's, Three Gorges Project Construction Committee approved a massive rescue operation to save the important archaeological sites below the 135 meter mark. The committee allocated a full 1 billion yuan (about US$125 million) to fund the Three Gorges Relics Rescue Program. This makes provision for the protection of 1,074 historical sites and relics in the area prior to the completion of the Three Gorges Dam scheduled in 2009.


This major project has seen nearly 100 archaeological teams drawn from over 20 provinces and cities in China. They have actually been working day and night at some 120 of the sites. They have taken on the Herculean task of covering a tract of land more than 660 Km long soon to disappear below the waters of the reservoir.


Most of the archaeological work at important historical sites situated below the 135-meter waterline has already been completed. 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 50,000 more commonplace artifacts for future generations.


Now the archaeologists are turning their attention to sites at higher levels up to the eventual 175 meter mark. They are planning the relocation and protection of 100 or so endangered sites of historical importance such as the 1,700-year-old Zhang Fei Temple. It was originally constructed in honor of General Zhang Fei during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280) on the southern bank of the Yangtze River in today’s Yunyang County. It is being moved brick by brick to a new higher site. Another prime example is Shibao Village on the northern bank of the Yangtze River in Zhong County. Built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and dubbed the world’s most complex wooden structure, it is being encircled by a protective dyke to hold back the rising waters.


Archaeological discoveries in recent years have shown for the fist time that the Three Gorges area should be recognized as the birthplace of Chinese civilization. This serves well to explain both the significance of and the necessity for the world’s largest cultural relics protection project now well under way there.


Discoveries of several sites of the Old Stone Age 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 with origins around 5,000 years ago together with early Neolithic remains dating back 7,000 years or so in areas of the Ba and Shu peoples. Such discoveries have laid a solid foundation for an understanding of development in the Three Gorges during those far off proto-historic times, just before the historical record begins.


In addition, archaeologists have made unexpected discoveries in Zhong County, Chongqing Municipality. There they found artifacts attributable to the Daxi, Qujialing and Shijiahe cultures that were once widely distributed over Hubei and Hunan provinces. These demonstrate that the people who lived in the Three Gorges area in prehistoric times had already carved out a cultural corridor with links to other ancient cultures spread along the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys.


The now long-gone Ba people were an ethnic group noted for their valor, singing and dancing. They lived in the Three Gorges area during the times of the Xia (2100-1600 BC), Shang (1600-1100 BC) and Zhou (1100-221 BC) dynasties. The secrets of their magnificent culture have long remained a mystery in the pages of Chinese history. But now the latest archaeological findings from over 100 relic sites and tombs left by the Ba people have revealed an uninterrupted cultural sequence from the Shang Dynasty down to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Bronze-ware in large quantities, architecture, smelting remains and kilns unearthed from archaeological sites including Shuangyantang in Wushan County, Shaopengzui in Zhong County and Lijiaba in Yunyang County are opening the door to serious research into the mysterious Ba Culture.


All this is indicative of a new wealth of archaeological findings filling the gaps in our understanding of the past in the Three Gorges area. A host of city sites, settlements, graves, buildings, kilns and agricultural remains belonging to the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties have furnished abundant evidence of environmental changes and the founding of ancient civilizations in the Three Gorges area.


Significant clues to the colorful lifestyles of people in ancient times have come to light in the form of their cultural relics. These have included the Han Dynasty stone reliefs that served to decorate ancient tombs, bamboo writing slips, statues of the Buddha, stone carvings erected in front of temples or tombs and Chinese chessmen.


In addition, a number of important architectural discoveries such as buildings from the Shang and Zhou dynasties in Wanzhou, Chongqing Municipality and city sites of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in Badong County and Fengjie County have contributed significantly to the study of ancient cities in China.


There is something that stirs the soul about this race against time to save the memory of the ancient peoples of Three Gorges. Many advanced techniques have been applied in the huge project to rescue their cultural relics. These have included thermoluminescence, accelerator mass spectrometry and energy-dispersive X-ray fluorescence. Digital technology has also been brought into play to support field excavations in the reservoir area and fieldwork management software has facilitated the handling and sharing of archaeological data.


The measures for the protection of the famous carved low-water markers at Baiheliang (White Crane Ridge) are both unique and technically demanding.


Baiheliang is a 1600-meter-long rock formation lying in the Yangtze River to the west of Fuling City. Its hydrological inscriptions dating back some 1,200 years have led the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to recognize it as “the world’s only well-preserved ancient hydrological station”.


Experts from the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences used resilient ethyl silicate for the first time to reinforce the carved stone and adopted high-tech materials such as polyester adhesive-bonded fabric to protect the inscriptions from erosion.


Specialists also designed a computer-aided three-dimensional model of the carved stone so that the different preservation plans that had been proposed could be better evaluated and compared.


Inspired by the design concept of an on-site unpressurized viewing facility, some experts put forward a plan to construct an ancient hydrological museum below the new water level at Baiheliang itself. This was most highly thought of by the parties concerned. Now the idea of the underwater museum has been accepted unanimously and work is already moving forward into the planning and implementation phases.


(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, April 9, 2003)

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