Indiana Zhangs

China’s archaeologists head for foreign soil

Indiana Jones

No Ark in China, at least

This autumn two teams of archaeologists from China will start work on two large digs in India, probably the most significant excavations that the Chinese have ever conducted beyond their own borders.

It illustrates the progress China’s archeological expertise has made. Bear in mind, modern archaeology only began in China in 1921, when the first work was completed by a Swedish mining adviser, who found evidence of prehistoric settlement.

Now, the discoveries are coming thick and fast, including the recent unearthing of 9,000-year-old rice fragments in Zheijiang – indicating a longer history of domesticated rice farming than previously thought – and some ancient beer-making kit from Shaanxi, suggesting that the Chinese have been on the sauce a lot longer than the rest of us.

In May it was also reported that local archaeologists had found the site of the imperial palace of the Yuan Dynasty, established by Kublai Khan in the 13th century.

The news that Chinese specialists will be travelling to India shows how they are setting their sights further from home.

“We now have the ability to go out and help others with funds, technology and skills,” explains Wang Wei, head of the Archaeology Institute at China’s Academy of Social Sciences. “We have entered an era of going out into the world.”

The digs will be at Rakhigarhi – a bronze age city about 150 kilometres northwest of Delhi – and at Sarnath, the north Indian temple complex where Buddha is said to have delivered his first teachings in the sixth century BC.

After decades of economic growth, China today has the financial heft to help other countries unearth and preserve their own cultural heritage – even places with longer archaeological traditions like India and Egypt.

The Chinese have invested heavily in archaeological training over the last 30 years, developing an army of well-equipped (and largely state-employed) experts. Many are as technically skilled as colleagues from nations such as the US, the UK and Germany. Yet there is a huge hole in their knowledge: the outside world. “Whatever the subject, the top scholars are always American,” says Wang. “Our biggest problem now is that we don’t know enough about other countries.”

In some ways that isn’t surprising. Archaeology is an expensive field that emerged first as a profession as the European powers started amassing foreign colonies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. China’s route was slightly different. While the first wave of Chinese archeology started under the stewardship of foreign academics, the subject was then infused with a growing sense of patriotism, which led to the training of local experts in the 1930s.

Many of these early archaeologists fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT after Mao Zedong’s proletarian revolution in 1949.

But those who stayed gave their services to the new government, helping to create a stronger national narrative that played up the historic achievements of the Han Chinese, most famously in the work that followed the discovery of the Terracotta Army by farmers in 1974.

Wang says Chinese archaeology is now a lot freer from political influence than in the past. But when he was asked about archaeological surveys of sections of the South China Sea – where territory is heavily disputed between a number of nations (see China Ink this issue) – he said it was “understandable” that some scholars hope to use their discoveries to prove China’s “historic sovereignty”.

Wang also concedes that some of the archaeological research relating to some of the more sensitive of China’s border regions might not be entirely neutral either.

“[In these cases] archaeology is inevitably connected to the state and ethnic minority issues,” he admits.

Such issues don’t seem to bother the increasing number of countries willing to cooperate with Chinese archaeological teams, however. In recent years they have searched for sunken Chinese treasure ships off the coast of Kenya, uncovered an ancient Buddhist temple in Bangladesh and helped to excavate Maya ruins in Honduras.

A project in Egypt is also in the pipeline, according to Wang.

But the Indian digs are the largest, with China committing at least five archaeologists to each site for five years, and providing 80% of the funding.

Vasant Shinde, the head of the dig at the ancient Harappan civilisation site at Rakhigarhi – says he is thrilled that the Chinese want to help. He says he has craved greater contact with Chinese archaeologists to help with areas of study – like the history of Buddhism – that can benefit from their knowledge of ancient texts and relics.

Right now, though, it is China’s state-of-the-art hardware that excites Shinde the most. He says the Chinese archaeologists first task at Rakhigarhi will be to survey the largely unexplored 350-hectare site, using aerial drones and 3D imaging sysems for clues on where best to dig. Later, he hopes to send samples from the site back to China for carbon-dating, using technology that is in short supply in India.

“A country the size of India should have a dozen [such machines]. We have two. It slows things down,” he laments.

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