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Archive for the ‘News Articles of Interest’ 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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Something many of you who have dabbled in Antiquities Market research already know is the so-called “driving force of collectors;” well, in China, as many sinologists already know, a new class of people have recently been exercising their social and economic power. This new class, called China’s New Bourgeoise, is made up primarily of wealthy, professional urbanites in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and their effect on China’s antiquities market has been quite influential.

I recently Twittered a short article from The Museum Security Network regarding the drive of China’s domestic collectors to acquire Chinese antiquities. The article draws particular attention to operation of the Chinese antiquities market in which archaeological sites get looted by locals using sophisticated archaeological techniques, and sell their goods to middlemen who bring them to Hong Kong, where a legal loophole in which Hong Kong is not yet bound by PRC law (for the next 40 or so years) is exploited and the antiquities are sold to international as well a domestic buyers.

What I really took away from this article, however, is not so much how looted antiquities flow through China’s markets, but rather, the ever-growing problem of this new Chinese bourgeois class, which has developed a taste for collecting art that is just as voracious, if not more so, than that of developed Western countries. What is unique in this situation is that China has effectively become both a “source nation” as well as a “market nation.” This creates problems of international legislation as many defenders of the antiquities market (museum directors and prominent collectors, etc…) can argue that international sanctions against the buying and selling of unprovenanced antiquities are rendered futile if domestic buyers are not also sanctioned in the same way.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

[EDIT:] To draw more attention to this, consider the comment Dr. Kwame Opoku posted on my recent article on SAFECORNER. What do you think should be done about reconciling the differences between international and domestic cultural heritage protection plans and legal statutes?

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Reactions and comments on two articles that have recently come out, one in the British newspaper, The Telegraph, and the other just today in the New York Times have garnerd a great deal of public opinion.

Trolling the comments pages is fascinating because it allows us to guage how the general public feels about these issues, and whether or not they are aware of any potential truths and falsehoods behind the rather succinct reports.

If you haven’t yet read the articles, I have linked to them above.

And for those of you who have read the articles, but don’t have the time or energy to troll through pages and pages of what other people write, I have selected a few choice excerpts to display here.

From The Telegraph article:

My prediction is that in 50 years time, Britain will not be in a position to say no to the return of the artifacts. The balance of power is inexorably shifting from West to East and all the arguments based on right will be eventually settled by might, as they have been since the beginning of history. – H. Yates

It’s about time that these artifacts be returned to their countries of origin. The British and French have no right to them. Besides, it would do French and British culture some good, the returned artifacts will make room for native French and British artifacts. China should join with Italy, Greece, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, and any other country who has artifacts looted by these two imperial powers and demand their cultural heritage back. And united front in this matter would be the best strategy. – Old School

please respect the research team.Their mission is to document not to ask for return.So just focus on it.
It is a great and difficult task to show the whole pictures of that invasion history, which shall not be forgotten . – Nikita

I think the artifacts should stay where they are. The British museum has taken better care of them than the chinese would have. If the chinese government is taking an interest in it’s history, it should be thanking the museums and private collectors who have been preserving chinese artifacts. If these artifacts had been left in china, they most likely would have been destroyed in the cultural revolution. The fact that they are in museums in britain is the only reason that they still exist today. – Dave

Of course EVERYTHING looted should be returned. Museums would be emptied until copies could be made. But, the originals should be returned. It is an arrogant response to state “we took good care of them” Since they belong to other countries, we stole them. It’s that simple. Even if they were destroyed and lost by staying in the country of origin, it is the business of that country. Not ours. When I see people use any excuse to drag Tibet or Taiwan into this argument I have the same response. Not your business. Not mine. It is the business of China. I also wonder how we would feel if China or Iraq or any other country were to start poking noses into UK affairs or policies. Send it all back to the country of origin, with apologies for being thieving bastards. Say we are more civilized now, our ancestors were not. – Dave T.

From The New York Times article:

One must wonder how many of these art treasures would have survived Mao’s Red Guard while they mindlessly destroyed all evidence of the “old ways”….China has a long memory when they wish to bring to the attention of the western countries that they were exploited…China has a convenient memory when it suits them. – Hooter

Beijing’s determination to reclaim its cultural heritage would bear a good deal more credibility if they’d stop ransaking the culture of their own Tibetan and Uighur minorities. – Stu Freeman

…the Chinese want to portray themselves as victims of colonial aggression – Andy

Actually, I, as a citizen of the socalled People’s Republic of China,completely agree that those antiquities are better to be preserved in the great USA museums.With good,scientific,well-intended caring and highly-efficient study,they can be in a greater situation of protection and of greater use and value.
I fundamentally disagree with the visit of the delegation…I want to ask that who payed for the fees of the “reclaiming”?…why dot’t you(the communists of CPC) put the money to render better protection of the remnants of relics at home? ……Are the untold number of antiquities and relice ruined in the notorious Cultural Revolution more vulueable and treasurous than those plundered from Yuanmingyuan? And……who should be responsible for ruining and destroying so many great antiquities in the damned Cultural Revolution? Maybe we should hold a debate at home instead of going abroad in vain! – Isaac

This bemused and farcical account does a great disservice to readers who rely on the New York Times for objective and insightful journalism.
The Summer Palace was not just a single palace, but rather, an 860-acre estate which served as one of the world’s foremost repositories of art and architecture. In terms of its cultural and administrative importance, the Summer Palace stood in contrast to the “Winter Palace,” which is a famous structure shown in many postcards today depicting Beijing tourist sites.
The Summer Palace was plundered, five hundred of its unarmed custodians were massacred or driven out, and its buildings were burned to the ground during the Second Opium War by French and English troops on the orders of the eighth Earl of Elgin (ironically, the son of the seventh Lord Elgin infamous for relieving the Parthenon of its marble friezes).
Lord Elgin’s orders were issued when the Chinese Imperium refused to allow the sale of narcotics in their land. To provide an imperfect fictional modern analogy, imagine if a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (and not the U.S.) were the world’s foremost superpower, and then imagine if Afghan forces marched a “world coalition” into Vatican City, stole or destroyed all of the art and relics there, murdered the clergy, and then dropped an atomic bomb on the city because the Holy See refused to allow Taliban drug cartels to traffic heroin in the streets of Vatican City. Just as we would be appalled and outraged by such an occurrence for generations to come, the citizens of China understandably remain appalled and outraged by the destruction of the Summer Palace.

The tone of the article conveys little sympathy with the Chinese perspective of things. It dismissively characterizes the delegation’s work as “a spectacle sponsored by a Chinese liquor company,” recounts the delegation’s activities in a most diminutive way (e.g., “The Chinese pronounced themselves satisfied, smiled for a group photo, and drove away.”), and gives great weight to reports of ulterior motives in the delegation’s mission…….As the NYT’s own columnist Thomas Friedman admonishes, we live in a globalized economy where an accurate understanding of other cultural perspectives is imperative to professional success and successful economic engagement. By portraying China in such a buffoonish way on a matter of great importance, and by downplaying the very human yearning of the Chinese people for redress of a serious crime committed against their nation and their forefathers, this article performs a great disservice upon its readers and falls far short of the high standards of journalism which the paper professes. – Dexter H.

They certainly have played up the repatriation of relics in recent months, and there is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that this tour was as motivated by politics as any genuine hope of reclaiming stolen history. I also realize that the Summer Palace museum is in need of a modern overhaul, and that chances are most of the looted items are in private collections today (though, I’d bet that they are far more successful in the UK and France than the US, being that those countries were the actual perpetrators of the looting). However, despite these problems, I think this is overall a good quest. – Shanghai Expat

Why not cooperte with the chinese government and jointly devise a plan to uncover and resolve any issue with the “looted” chinese treasuries if there is one. There is a lot of history and cultural significance in these objects. And China probably is the best to find out the historical significance and value in the chinese and the world history. – Jim

..and so on.

Take a gander at the articles if you are interested in this ongoing saga. Or better yet, check out an upcoming post on the SAFE blog, SAFECORNER, written by yours truly that will be coming out in the next few days.

If these article piqued your fancy, you might also be interested in reading about the views and positions of various Chinese Nationals about China purchasing looted Qing Dynasty antiquities, much like the ones they are currently surveying and examining in the West.

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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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Just found THIS article published in February on popular Chinese popnews website ChinaSMACK about the Christie’s auction of two of the now pretty well known bronze zodiac animal heads that were looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) during the 1860s by the British and French armies.

The article is interesting for several reasons. First, it provides, very clearly, Chinese netizen reactions not only to the act of looting itself, but to the idea of buying back China’s patrimony, especially under such widely publicized conditions.

Reading the comments (they have been translated into English, so don’t worry), it seems very obvious that there are several sides to the debate. On the one hand, there are many young Chinese nationals who believe that no matter what, the heads should be bought back because not doing so would be a blow to Chinese nationalism; these same people are generally quite angry over what they see as deliberate insults to China on the part of France (in particular). On the other hand, some nationals don’t really care either way, and even seem to question the point of reclaiming what they call “copper faucets,” especially since the Chinese government is now wealthy enough that they could “make them in pure gold.” Still others take a more middle ground, and whilst supporting the Chinese government’s demand to buy the heads back, also admit that there are bigger “cultural relics” than these relatively young specimens that China should be focusing on.

Here are some examples of the comments to tantalize your tastebuds:

What is the use of spending so much money to get these back? Aren’t they just copper faucets? With 200 million, we can make them in pure gold. There are so many national treasures out there, why just focus on these two?

When did those things become China’s national treasures? Were it not for us buying a few of them a few years ago, who would care about this? Just look at how much the prices have grown over these past few years! They are just waiting for us to go waste our money! It would be better for us to care about those real national treasures that have been lost overseas!

Seeing China’s plundered cultural relics being auctioned is as if I was painfully seeing the shadow of the time period our ancestors were killed, robbed, and pillaged!!! It cannot be like this!!! Now the French want to again hurt the Chinese people a second time!!!
French people, how can you be this way!!!
This is the benefit that the French people chase after??? What benefit can the French people get from hurting the Chinese people’s genuine feelings!!!
The Chinese people cannot agree to this!!!
Resolutely oppose!!

Read the full article to get all the juicy debate details.

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So there has been information floating around recently that the Chinese are taking their recent preoccupation with reacquiring previously looted antiquities (called the  Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program) to a whole new playing field, and have gained access to the British Museum, as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum in order to inspect their collections for items that can be proved to have been illegally removed.

This is seriously interesting, folks. From all angles. I’m currently on the hunt for more information about this subject, but as a teaser, here’s an article about it from the Telegraph. Be sure the peruse the comments as well, fascinating the opinions an endeavor like this generates…

Will keep you posted.

Also, as a heads up, book reviews are soon to be added! Yay!

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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 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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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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