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Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

If you remember THIS post from a while back, you’ll already know that several months ago, an 800 year-old merchant vessel dubbed “Nanhai No. 1” was successfully located and excavated from the coastal waters of Guangdong Province. Well, recently, another vessel, this one called “Nan’ao-1,” dated roughly 400 year old was found, and salvage excavation is now underway.

According to the report from Xinhuanews, the plan is to excavate the more than 10,000 pieces of locally produced, Ming Dynasty porcelains that were the ship’s main cargo, and then attempt to raise the remains of the ship itself for further study. The excavators claim that “the excavation of the ship will help us learn more about China’s foreign trade at that time.”

The article also notes that the project has been postponed several months due to poor weather and working conditions, but no mention was made of how the finds will be preserved. “Nanhai No. 1” is currently being kept “…in a glass pool at a local museum, the water there duplicating the conditions in which the wreck was found.”

Hopefully, a similar arrangement will be made for “Nan’ao-1.”

Interestingly, these articles never go into full detail about either the projects, of the preservation conditions of the finds… or what happens to the artifacts after they are excavated…something to keep in mind. However, that they claim to be doing the up most to preserve the wreckages is promising.

What this newest excavation shows, however, is that Guangdong’s coastal waters are rapidly becoming a hotbed of underwater archaeology in China, which is itself a budding discipline. It will be interesting to see, in the future, whether Western scholars will be allowed to participate in such projects and whether Chinese underwater archaeology can become a “next big thing.” It also makes me wonder what the state of underwater looting is in China… a subject that has not yet been broached on many fronts. Does anyone out there in the blogosphere have any information on it? I’ll try to do some digging on the subject, but my gut instinct says that somehow, it is not as developed in China as it is in other areas of the word…. prove me wrong!

So far in China, according to the report, salvage archaeology and underwater archaeology is still very much a state-run enterprise.

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If you recall THIS post on this blog several months ago, you’ll remember that China has recently been funding a full-scale excavation of a submerged Ming dynasty merchant vessel that sank off of the coast of Guangdong nearly 800 years ago.

Well, on December 3rd, Xinhuanet posted that over 2,000 visitors turned up to the  soft opening of a museum dedicated to showcasing the remains of the vessel as they are being uncovered and studied. The museum is said to open for good on December 24th of this year.

According to the article, construction of the museum began in 2006, and cost more than 200 million RMB (approximately 29 million USD). Despite the costly construction, attendees complained that the exhibitions were quite small, consisting only of some porcelains and a small amount of silver and gold pieces. The reason, most likely, for the small size of the exhibits is that the true, full-scale excavation of the vessel, despite having been brought to the surface of the ocean for quite some time already, is not set to begin until next year.

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Check out THIS 2005 documentary film about the Bamyan Buddhas.

It’s been out for a while, but I figured I’d draw your attention to it, since Columbia University’s Center for Archaeology recently hosted a discussion panel about it. It’s a good introduction to some of the problems facing archaeological sites in Central Asia.

It’s also available for purchase on DVD. I know what’s on my Christmas list!

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Check out THIS article that was posted in the New York Times this morning about grassroots organizations against looting in Peru, Mali, and Iraq.

It’s a little off topic from the usual fare on this blog, but I think its worthwhile to examine what people in other countries are doing about archaeological site looting.

Plus, the article is written by Roger Atwood, whose book, Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, is one of the best contributions to the raising of awareness about the topic in the last few years.

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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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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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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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