On November 26 an archaeologist made a ‘tiny breach in the top left hand corner of the doorway’. Asked if he saw anything, he replied “Yes, I see wonderful things.”
The find in question occurred just over 87 years ago and the archaeologist was Howard Carter. He had just broken into the tomb of Tutankhamen, the Egyptian pharaoh. It was unquestionably the most famous excavation of the twentieth century.
Last month, China had its own moment of archaeological sensation. The country’s leading archeologist called it the find of the year. But unlike Carter – who was hailed by the British public as a hero – the team who unearthed this particular tomb were ridiculed.
The tomb is said to belong to Cao Cao – a legendary Chinese general who became the King of Wei and one of the great figures in the Three Kingdoms era.
Archaeologists in Henan province announced they had unearthed his tomb in late December. They discovered a burial chamber in Anyang county which contained more than 250 artefacts, as well as a set of human bones of a man in his sixties. These, they claim, are the remains of Cao Cao, who died at the age of 66 in 220 AD.
But China is a pretty low-trust society – and archaeology is no exception. So no sooner was the discovery announced than internet users began to cast doubt on the find. Newspaper Southern Weekend joined a chorus of media crying foul. Cynics proclaimed the tomb was a fake, engineered by the local government to earn tourism revenue.
There is a precedent for the doubters: last year a local forestry authority released a photo of a South China tiger, also in a bid to generate tourism dollars. The tiger snap was then endorsed by provincial authorities in Shaanxi before it was found to be bogus. Thirteen officials were disciplined or sacked.
It doesn’t help that the location of Cao Cao’s final resting place has long been something of mystery. The wily ruler was paranoid about grave robbers raiding his tomb, so he built 72 decoys to throw them off the scent. That adds to the confusion surrounding the new claim, stirring what the China Daily calls “an unprecedented public debate”.
The archaeologists are now staging a fightback. Wang Wei, head of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has said that eight tablets inside the tomb mentioning the Wu King of Wei offer “unquestionably solid evidence” that it really is Cao Cao’s final resting place.
He added that the style and size of the tomb provide further proof.
In order to convince a sceptical public, Wang’s institute recently broadcast a live seminar in which experts newly returned from the site gave their own opinions on the tomb’s veracity.
“We believe that if the public can share our reasoning process based on our expertise, they will come to understand how we came to the conclusion that the tomb belongs to Cao,” says Wang hopefully.
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