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Archive for June, 2009

A short announcement came out on the 24th of June that China was nominating 2 sites to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in an attempt to replace Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley, which was removed due to construction of a bridge in the centre of the valley.

Yesterday, Xinhua.net announced that Mt. Wutai was successfully inscribed on the list, saying that “the buildings on the site present a catalogue of the way Buddhist architecture developed and influenced palace building in China over more than a millennium.”

Indeed, Mt. Wutai, which is located in the province of Shanxi, China, is one of the most important Buddhist sites in China, with over 53 sacred monastaries situated around its 5 rounded peaks. It is also home of China’s oldest extant wooden structure, which dates to the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.). Another important individual site located on the mountain that UNESCO aims to protect is the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) Shuxiang Temple that “contains a huge complex of 500 statues representing Buddhist stories woven into three dimensional pictures of mountains and water.”

In my opinion, this is all well and good, but what about Kashgar?

Image of some of the Buddhist temples situation around Mt. Wutai's 5 peaks

Image of some of the Buddhist temples situated around Mt. Wutai's 5 peaks

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A news article came out today that rescue excavations will commence immediately at the Zhoukoudian Cave Site that is located 50 kilometers SW of Beijing.

Location of of the Zhoukoudian Cave Site

Location of of the Zhoukoudian Cave Site

According to the report, the excavation will last for 4 months, and is intended not only to shore up a large fracture that has appeared on the ceiling of the cave due to natural erosion, but also to answer some important research questions that had not been fully explored when the cave was last excavated in the 1980s.

The Zhoukoudian site is most well known was being the place where Peking Man was discovered in the 1920s, first by Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunner Andersson, and later on by Chinese scholars. Peking Man is considered to be one of the oldest hominid fossils yet discovered in China, and puts human occupation in north China as early as 500,000 years ago.

Gao Xing, a Paleoanthropologist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) says that:

The excavation will help us understand in a more detailed way when humans settled down in the cave, when they began to use fire, what and when major climate changes occurred.

One of the most debated and interesting aspects of Peking Man, and Locality 1 at Zhoukoudian, is Peking Man’s supposed use and mastery of fire. This is an idea that is still widely accepted and believed in China, though some western scholars have begun to doubt this claim’s validity. In the late 1990s, a team of archaeologists lead by professor Paul Goldberg of Boston University conducted micromopholocial analysis on the soil layers of the site, and found that the ashy deposits that scholars had until then been believing were evidence of hearths and fire burning activities at the site were in fact washed in by water, and not evidence of burning at all. The report of what they found can be read HERE, at Boston University’s website for their Department of Archaeology.

Image of Zhoukoudian Locality 1. Taken from:http://people.bu.edu/paulberg/china_zh.html

Image of Zhoukoudian Locality 1. Taken from:http://people.bu.edu/paulberg/china_zh.html

The archaeologists working at the site this time around hope that by conducting rescue archaeology, they will be able to prove, once and for all, whether or not these deposits are evidence of fire usage, and if fire was ever mastered by Peking Man.

It should be noted that the Zhoukoudian site IS listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, and thus its protection should be of the highest priority.

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Just got wind of yet another set of initiatives aimed at garnering attention and awareness of the ongoing demolition of Old Kashgar that has been in the news lately (if you’ve been paying attention to the side headlines in your national newspaper).

HERE is yet another “SAVE KASHGAR” Facebook group that posts some interesting events coming up. It was started by a student at the University of Toronto and already has over 150 members.

HERE is another petition on petitiononline.com that aims to petition the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to consider making Kashgar a World Heritage Site. Sounds a lot like what the people over at SAFE are trying to do as well, draw attention to the fact that Kashgar not only deserves to be, but frankly should have been made a World Heritage Site sooner, and NOT after its demolition begins.

Anyways, the petition will herein be permenantly linked on the RIGHT (under “Petitions”). It has over 6000 signatories already, let’s make it 7000!

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For anyone who can read Chinese (simplified), or who wants to practice their Chinese, HERE is an interesting article from www.popyard.org, a popular Chinese news website that discusses whether or not the Tomb of Qinshihuang should be excavated.

The famous mausoleum of Qinshihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. – 206 B.C.), has reentered the news recently because of the 3rd excavation on the terracotta warriors pits that commenced earlier this month.

The mausoleum of the famed emperor himself has not yet been excavated, however, due to several competing arguments for and against it. First off, as the popyard opinion piece fervently opens with, “excavating the tomb of an ancient emperor for the sake of boosting curiosity and tourism is (should be) absolutely forbidden;” many Chinese feel that excavating this tomb would be akin to sacrilege, and that the tombs of the ancients, especially an ancient as well-known, respected, and somewhat feared as Qinshihuang should be left in peace and admired from afar. Second, even those who advocate for excavating the tomb are hesitant because they fear the corrosive effects of exposing whatever treasures the tomb may have to offer to the air, which has already been demonstrated on the paint once covering the terracotta warriors.

In addition, there are many myths and stories surrounding what may be contained inside that enormous mound that makes up the tomb, including poisoned arrows, rivers of mercury, and a plethora of guardian spirits. All of these stem from the well-known idea that Qinshihuang, during his lifetime, was obsessed with immortality, and took endless pains to ensure that his body and spirit would be preserved long after his death. If the grandiosity of the terracotta warrior pits so far found are any indication of how seriously Qinshihuang might have been about wanting his mortal remains to be protected, the sheer size of his mausoleum has been an effective deterrant for even the most curious Chinese scholar.

On a more practical level, the amount of tourism that the site has garnered in the last several decades has required the Chinese to ensure its protection. As a result this tomb is one of rare exceptions in China that has NOT been looted to within an inch of its life.

The question now is, what benefit would excavating the tomb bring not only to China, but also to the international community? Is the mausoleum better off untouched? Given all of the arguments against excavating it, dangers contained within, issues of conservation and preservation, and the dangers from without (looting), it is hard to imagine that any information about Qinshihuang and his time period that the tomb could tell us would be worth losing such a treasure. Even hard-nosed archaeologists and people who are pro-information gathering, sometimes have a difficult time speaking up against the tide that upholds the importance of keeping THIS tomb intact.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

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On June 21st, China announced that a 3-5 year plan for excavating and studying the remains of a shipwrecked merchant vessel dating to the Song Dynasty shall commence shortly.

The vessel, known as Nanhai No. 1 was a merchant trading vessel that sank off the coast of Guangdong Province.

Guangdong Province highlighted in red

Guangdong Province highlighted in red

In 2007, it was successfully pulled from the sea and has been housed in the newly constructed Marine Silk Road Museum in Yangjiang, Guangdong, in a tank of silt and seawater measuring 64 meters long, 40 meters wide, 23 meters high and about 12 meters in depth.

China is hoping that the information gleaned from excavating this well-preserved vessel will lead to new insights about the supposed Maritime Silk Road trading route.

Maritime Silk Road Trading Route highlighted in BLUE

Maritime Silk Road Trading Route highlighted in BLUE

Everyone is(or should be) familiar with stories and history of the Silk Road’s land routes by now, but marine trade between east and west during the last thousand years has never really been studied, mostly because nautical archaeology is notoriously difficult, especially on the cultural heritage front.

For the most part, underwater archaeological and cultural heritage sites t belong to the country in whose territorial waters they are located. That means that generally, if a site is located near the coast of a country, by law, that site belongs to that country. Both the US and China have domestic laws that stipulate this, though the difference between them is that in the US, if the site is located on private property, the owner can do with it as they wish, and in China, all sites within all territorial waters belong to the government.

Now, WHERE a country decides their territorial waters begin and end has been a thorn in the side of underwater archaeological site protection. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles off the very edge of the country’s coastline in all directions.* The problem with China is that it often claims property rights to ancient Chinese merchant vessels, like the Nanhai No. 1, that are currently located in the territorial waters of other modern nations. How these issues get resolved are not often reported, so it’s really anyone’s guess.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see how well-preserved the Nanhai No. 1 is now that is has been removed from the ocean and kept in a tank for the past several years. Hopefully it will yield useful information about Song Dynasty maritime trading, a subject that is not often studied by archaeologists, and open up a new field of inquiry for those interested not only in East Asian maritime history, but also in underwater archaeology.

As for the question of whether the Marine Silk Road actually exists, I don’t know, but I can see why China would hope that it does.

*This is a very meatball overview of the laws governing underwater archaeology. The actual circumstances are far more complex, and are constantly subject to change. There are also constant problems between international and domestic legislation concerning maritime property that require much more extensive coverage than can be provided here.

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For those who have not seen this yet, here is what another concerned citizen is doing to try to raise awareness about the Kashgar crisis.

In her Facebook post on another Saving Kashgar cause page started in D.C., she includes a link to a petition for President Obama regarding her concerns on the issue, which is an angle that, so far, I have not seen.

In addition, she kindly provides letter templates she has drafted to country ambassadors as well as to China’s foreign ambassador. all you need do is copy the letter, attach the name of your respective country’s ambassador to China, attach all the signatories that you can muster, and send them out.

Check it out if you are interested in helping out.

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A June 10th news post on Xinhua.net has announced that a third excavation shall begin this weekend at the world-famous Qin Terra Cotta Warriors site near the ancient capital of Xian in Shaanxi Province, China. The site is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, which means that it fulfills UNESCO’s criteria for being a shining example of “human creative genius.”

Location of the ancient city of Xian, Shaanxi Province, China. (Map courtesy of airexpresstravel.net)

Location of the ancient city of Xian, Shaanxi Province, China. (Map courtesy of airexpresstravel.net)

Image inside Pit No. 1

Image inside Pit No. 1

The first day of excavation began on June 13th, and is intended to uncover and preserve approximately 2,152 square feet (~2000 square meters) of Pit No. 1, the largest of three pits containing the famed life-size terracotta warriors over the course of 5 years. This year, China’s State Administration of Cultural Relics has approved the opening of approximately 200 square meters of the site.

Pit No. 1 in the center

Pit No. 1 in the center of the image

According to CBS news, “special care will be taken to preserve the figures’ painted details, which have faded almost entirely in those already taken from the earth and exposed to air.”

The first day of excavation, on June 13th, 2009, began at 1:00 pm and lasted for approximately 5 hours. During this time, Chinese archaeologists uncovered 2 four-horse chariots.

One of the main problems with excavating these pottery sculptures is that preservation of their pigmentation has been notoriously difficult. when the warriors were first discovered in 1974, they were supposedly richly colored, though exposure to the air has caused much of this original painting to corrode. According to Xinhua news, preservation has been taken into consideration much more carefully this time around, and is currently “better than thought.”

Poor conservation methods has also been one of the reasons why the rest of the terracotta warriors were not excavated earlier in time. In addition, the bulk of Qin Shihuang‘s actual tomb and burial chamber remains untouched, and it is unsure when or how archaeologists in China plan to excavate it.

Exterior image of the mound that is Qin Shihuang's unexcavated mausoleum

Exterior image of the mound that is Qin Shihuang's unexcavated mausoleum

Qin Shihuang’s tomb site is one of the most important archaeological and cultural heritage sites in China (and in the world), and it is certainly one of the most frequented and well-known. This new excavation is sure to bring in quite a large amount of new tourists, and probably boost the popularity of this site in the coming years.

Hopefully the plans for preserving the color on these newly excavated warriors will be successful.

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