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China deciphers world history through archaeological plans abroad

Author  :  ZHANG QINGLI and ZHANG JIE     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-10-17


Archaeologists from China and Bangladesh conduct large-scale excavations at the Vikrampur Ruins near the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

Around the world, civilizations evolved with convergent similarities and disparities. Since the birth of modern archaeology, studies have shed light on globalization and they suggest it may be much older than previously imagined. The Chinese civilization, with a broad sweep of history, holds a significant position in the world. To understand the five-millennia long civilization, a global view is needed.

During the 21st century, China’s multiple plans for archaeology abroad seek to decipher mysteries of human history and look at historical sites that reflect global exchanges among civilizations, revealing a historically open Chinese civilization. CSST reporters interviewed Wang Wei, former head of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and a CASS Member, about the program’s trajectory and outlook.

CSST: Please introduce the academic background of the implementation plan for China’s archaeology abroad.

Wang Wei: After the reform and opening up, Chinese institutions started to cooperate with their foreign counterparts, engaging in archaeological excavations in many parts of China. In 1991, such forms of cooperation had clear guidance to follow as the National Cultural Heritage Administration enacted the Measures of the People’s Republic of China for the Administration of the Foreign-related Archaeological Activities. China has formed partnerships with such countries as Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Canada, Australia, covering research projects of many forms, such as archaeological investigation and excavation.

As of 2015, more than 70 cooperative projects had been approved and implemented. They touched upon sites scattered in most provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions in China. The eras range from the Paleolithic, the Neolithic, the Bronze Age (such as the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties) and the Iron Age (such as Han, Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties). The research dealt with prehistoric settlements, ancient palaces, Buddhist temples, cemeteries, agriculture, paleoethnobotany, the relationship between people and the environment, the supply of such significant resources as copper and salt, and the study of ancient relics along the Silk Road. Due to national planning and management, these projects of international cooperation have remarkably bolstered the development of Chinese archaeology, deepened research in various fields, and narrowed the gap between China and global academic circles.

CSST: What was the internationalization process of Chinese archaeology?

Wang Wei: As Chinese archaeology grew, more and more archaeologists saw the importance of understanding the development of world archaeology. They started to focus on the study of exchanges between ancient China and ancient cultures in other regions. Archaeologists such as Wang Zhongshu (1925–2015), Wu’en Yuesitu (1937–2008) and Lin Yun (1939–) were devoted to the study of China’s cultural exchanges with Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and the Eurasian steppe in ancient times, showing originality. In 2000, the Institute of Archaeology at CASS sent ten young scholars to Germany to observe and learn Germany’s methods in archaeology. This was the first time when a Chinese archaeological institution gathered a team and participated in archaeological excavations abroad, holding symbolic significance in the internationalization of Chinese archaeology. In the summer of 2004, Jilin University dispatched a team to Amur Oblast in Russia to jointly excavate the Tang Dynasty Troitskiy cemetery of Mohe with the Russian archaeological institution. This excavation was the first time China sent a team to conduct cooperative archaeological excavations overseas. From then on, this marked the beginning of the internationalization of Chinese archaeology.

In 2005, Chinese archaeology reached maturity. The disciplinary system became more integrated. Also, archaeological research involved multiple disciplines and adopted technological methods such as chronometric dating and DNA technology. China increased its involvement in archaeology around the world. In 2005, the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region began to cooperate with the National Museum of Mongolia and other archaeological institutions to work on the “Archaeological Investigation and Excavation Research of Cultural Relics of Ancient Nomads in Mongolia” project. Among China’s archaeological excavations abroad, this excavation is the project that started early and lasted the longest. In the same year, Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute and Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology cooperated with archaeological institutions in Vietnam, launching years of joint excavations at the Yili site in northern Vietnam. Chinese archaeology facilitates exchanges with global academia as China’s economic strength and international status keep expanding.

CSST: What achievements have Chinese archaeology made in their overseas work?

Wang Wei: Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, Chinese archaeology has been more active in international exchanges. The Institute of Archaeology at CASS and the Institute of Archaeology of the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences conducted an eight-year cooperative archaeological excavation of the ancient city of Mingtepa, a key hub along the Silk Road. Scientists discovered the ruins of the capital city of Dayuan, a nation known for the rare Ferghana horse. It is the largest site in Ferghana Valley and a likely significant site along the ancient Silk Road.

Peking University, the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage and the National Museum of Kenya jointly excavated sites in eastern Kenya’s coastal areas. Cultural heritage workers unearthed remains which included Chinese ceramics made in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Since 2014, archaeologists from the Hunan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and its Bangladesh counterpart conducted large-scale excavations at the Vikrampur Ruins near the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Archaeologists now understand the layout and structure of the buildings.

In 2015, Nanjing University and Altai State University conducted small-scale excavations of ancient copper smelting remains in southern Siberia, Russia. Nanjing University also worked with the Iran Institution of Cultural Heritage and Tourism to explore Bronze Age sites in Iran.

It is noteworthy that since the summer of 2015, the Institute of Archaeology at CASS has been cooperating with the Institute of History and Anthropology of Honduras, and Harvard University on large-scale archaeological activities in Copán, a Mayan archaeological site in western Honduras. This project was the first excavation conducted by a Chinese archaeological institution on the remains of other major ancient civilizations.

Another epoch-making project is the cooperation between CASS and the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to excavate the Montu Temple, an important site in Thebes, the capital of the New Kingdom of Egypt. The project, which began implementation in 2018, has achieved remarkable results, filling excavation and understanding gaps in several areas of the temple.

China sent cultural relics protection teams to foreign countries earlier than archaeological excavations abroad. In 1996, the China Institute of Cultural Property (the predecessor of the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage) started a conservation and restoration project in Angkor Wat, an ancient site in Cambodia, and it has continued to this day. The organization also preserved and restored the nine-storeyed Basantapur complex in the Kathmandu Durbar Square in Nepal and several other historical sites. Its staff members’ exquisite skills and dedicated work attitudes won global praise.

Chinese institutions have conducted archaeological investigations and excavations, cultural heritage protection and maintenance projects in more than 20 countries around the world, according to statistics which are still incomplete. Of them, the Institute of Archaeology at CASS went to Egypt to excavate important ancient Egyptian sites. This move has solicited widespread international attention, signaling that the view and scope of Chinese archaeology extends beyond neighboring countries and regions, expanding to other ancient civilizations in the world.

CSST: How would you describe the significance of China’s plans for archaeology abroad?

Wang Wei: Chinese archaeology is an important part of world archaeology. Chinese archaeology is destined to go to and integrate into the world. This trend is the inevitable development of Chinese archaeology. Ancient China sustains inextricable links with the outside world. The Silk Road has been a gateway connecting ancient China and the outside world since ancient times.

Ancient Chinese culture contains many advanced elements of foreign civilizations. For example, wheat, oxen, sheep, metallurgy, carriages were all introduced into China from Western Asia via Central Asia between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago. It is tough to conduct in-depth research on the development of ancient Chinese history and culture without referencing foreign historical and archaeological materials. There is no bedrock for comparative studies nor feasibility to understand their own characteristics without looking at other civilizations.

It is foreseeable that the internationalization of Chinese archaeology will reach a zenith. More Chinese archaeological institutions will join. The figures of Chinese archaeological teams will appear in more countries. The international status of Chinese archaeology will continuously elevate. Also, Chinese archaeologists will be more active on the international stage and contribute to the development of archaeology around the world.

Editor: Yu Hui

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