Antiquities & Archaeology

This year’s top discoveries, as published in the State Cultural Relics Bureau’s weekly newspaper, plus the top ten projects of the past five years

The red-letter roll call of recent Chinese archaeology


The Chinese fondness for expressions of numerical neatness translates itself into all fields of endeavour. In archaeology, ten leading projects are selected each year for top honours—the accompanying accolades ensuring national, and often international, reputations and ongoing funding.

The annual selections are made by the State Cultural Relics Bureau’s weekly newspaper China Cultural Relics News. The top ten archaeological discoveries of 1995 and several years prior to that, selected from more than 400 projects carried out over the year, were announced in red type-face in the newspaper’s 18 February issue. This year’s selections were especially significant, because the newspaper made a simultaneous announcement of the ten top archaeological discoveries during the Eighth Five-Year Plan (1991-95).

China Cultural Relics News annually assembles a selection panel of twenty experts from the most prestigious organisations in the field—the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology, the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology, Beijing University, the Chinese History Museum and the Chinese Cultural Relics Research Institute. Projects for consideration are put forward by excavation teams and local authorities. Selections are based on these incoming reports, as well as on field trips occasionally undertaken by members of the team.

However, recommendations often come hand in hand with ulterior motives on the part of those who make them, and reflect the ongoing regional rivalries that exist within China. A case in point is the proposal of Yanggu county in Shandong province of the neolithic site in Jingyanggang, which lies within the county and which is better known as the place where Wu Song killed the tiger in the ancient Chinese novel The Water Margin. The county’s proposal for the coveted award was their excavation of a “walled town” of the neolithic Longshan period (around 2500-2000 BC). This site was discovered as early as 1973, although excavation only started in 1994. The Jingyanggang excavation team was initially surprised by the potential scale of the site, 350,000 square metres, and concluded that they had discovered the remains of a sizeable neolithic town.

Such a find is of great significance, since in traditional archaeology the transition from large neolithic settlements to walled cities denotes the emergence of “civilisation”. In contemporary China, rural counties and townships vie to be upgraded by the central government to the status of cities. If Yanggu county were to gain archaeological recognition as possessing one of China’s oldest “walled cities”, it would attract greater government funding and tourist investment.

Although the Jingyanggang dig diversified the profile of Longshan culture, many archaeologists are unconvinced that the mere 220 square metres so far excavated in the local town park provide sufficient evidence for the existence of a walled city or town. Unearthed were the vestiges of two tamped earth terraces featuring two pits, one containing sheep and dog bones, the other the complete skeleton of a dog. These are presumed to have been sacrificial offerings.

The top ten sites 1991-95

1. Three Gorges excavations

2. The Palaeolithic site at Tangshan in Nanjing,Jiangsu province.

3. Xianren cavern and Diaotonghuan at Wannian county in Jiangxi province.

4. The Xinglongwa settlement site in Aohan Banner, Inner Mongolia.

5. The large Liangzhu culture site at Mojiaoshan in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province (incorporating the Liangzhu culture altar and burial site at Huiguanshan, Yuhang).

6. The cemetery of the Marquis of Jin at Beizhao village, Quwo county, Shanxi province.

7. The Western Han dynasty Liang kingdom imperial tombs and the mausoleum of the Liang king Xiao in Yongcheng county, Henan province.

8. The Han dynasty Xuanquanzhi site at Dunhuang in Gansu province.

9. The sites of the Sui dynasty Renshou summer palace and the Tang dynasty Jiucheng summer palace at Linyou county in Shaanxi province.

10. The Tang-Song cities in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province.

1995’s ten prize projects

1. Mummified corpses and preserved silk from Caucasian culture

One of the most publicised archaeological events of 1995 was the joint Sino-Japanese excavation of the Niya site in the western Xinjiang region. Situated in the middle of the northern Silk Road the site has provided convincing evidence of the close relationship between the western and central regions of China in the period from the Han to the Jin dynasty.

The most important discovery to date is a cemetery from which eight graves have been unearthed. As a result of the arid conditions, the mummified corpses and the silk textiles in which they were encased have remained in a remarkable state of preservation. These mummies have attracted international attention because they provide new evidence of the existence of “Caucasian” ethnic groups in China at such an early date. The wooden coffins and their contents have now been removed to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, for further investigation.

2. Joint China/US project in Jiangxi province

Top of the list was the excavation of Xianren cave and Diaotonghuan in Wannian county, Jiangxi province, a joint project between Beijing University, the Jiangxi Archaeology Institute and the US Andisco Foundation. Work at the site was conducted throughout 1993 and from September to November 1995. The project provided very convincing geological evidence concerning the transition from the paleolithic to the neolithic and is hailed as a breakthrough in this internationally controversial field of study.

3. Circular site is China’s earliest city

As described above, Jingyanggang ultimately failed to make it into the top ten, but another early walled town fared much better. Located in Xishan, on the northern outskirts of Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, the site is dated to 5,300-4,800 BC. Excavated between 1993 and 1995, it has won the distinction of being “China’s earliest city”. Circular in plan, the city exhibits more advanced architectural techniques than any other excavated city from this period. More than 290 metres of the city wall still remain intact.

4. Stone buildings at a Guangzhou construction site

The ruins of stone buildings unearthed at a construction site in Guangzhou (Canton), were also selected as of prime importance (see The Art Newspaper, No. 56, February 1996, p. 17). The site covers an area of about 650 square metres, and includes the ruins of imperial palaces dating back to the Nanyue kingdom of the early Western Han dynasty. Large amounts of pottery and other relics were also unearthed.

5. The earliest pieces of pottery found in China to date

Another first was provided by the excavation of the 10,000 year old Yuchanyan site in Daoxian county, Hunan province, by the Hunan Province Archaeology Institute. Two paddy rice seeds were found in this ancient village, one apparently planted by hand. This is believed to be the earliest human-planted paddy seed fossil found to date. The site also yielded fragments of pottery, which, along with those found at the Wannian Xianren cave, are said to be the earliest examples of pottery found in China.

6. Gold, silver and jade objects from a lavish tomb in Xuzhou

Numerous cultural artefacts, including 200 pieces of jade, 150 official seals, gold and silver objects, and iron weapons, were also found at the site occupying seventh place on the selection committee’s list. Between December 1994 and March 1995, the Nanjing Museum and the Xuzhou Han Dynasty Terracotta Warriors Museum excavated a lavish tomb on Shizishan hill in Xuzhou. The tomb is believed to be that of Liu Wu, a noble of the Western Han dynasty, and is important for understanding the cultural, economic and military activities of the period.

7. Aristocratic tombs from the ancient state of Shi

From March to June 1995, experts from Shandong University conducted field work at the Xianrentai site in Changqing county, Shandong province. Excavations uncovered a number of house ruins, cellars and tombs from the Yueshi culture, the Western Zhou and the Han. The most important discoveries were six tombs that belonged to the aristocrats of the ancient state of Shi, which existed from the late Western Zhou to the late Spring and Autumn period. There have been few previous finds from this state.

8. Hundreds of stone and brick tombs in Bohai region

Between 1992 and 1995 archaeological excavations revealed 323 tombs, seven altars and more than 2,000 cultural artefacts in Bohai township, Ning’an city, in China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province. The tombs, dated from the late period of the Mohe culture to the middle period of the Bohai archaeological culture, have been divided into three types; stone, brick and those with a combination of both materials. The extended time frame, great diversity and value of the objects found at the site make it of enormous value in determining the ancient history of the Bohai region from the neolithic to the bronze age.

9. Many relics from the ancient city in Shifo county

The excavated ruins of another ancient city, this time from the proto-Shang Baijiazhuang period, also made the list. The ruins cover an area of approximately 1.2 million square metres in Shifo county to the northwest of Zhengzhou. The project, jointly conducted by the Henan Provincial Archaeology Institute and Zhengzhou University, unearthed a large number of relics, including a pottery jar bearing an inscription that is closely related to the well known bone and tortoiseshell inscriptions from the same era. The find provides valuable information for the study of the Xia and Shang dynasties.

10. The ancestral temple of the Southern Song dynasty

The judges’ final selection was the site of the Ancestral Temple (Taisi) of the Southern Song dynasty in Hangzhou which was first erected in 1134. The eastern wall of the temple is well preserved and many of the square bricks used in its construction are inscribed with the characters “guan” (official) and “ping an”. Outside the wall is an “imperial road” made of “incense cake” bricks. It is believed that further examination of this site will add greatly to scholars’ understanding of urban life during this period.

While excavations at all of these sites have undoubtedly yielded invaluable historical information and deserve continued support, the same cannot be said of the first choice on the list of the top ten projects in the Eighth Five-Year Plan. According to inside sources, exploratory work in the area of the Three Gorges on the Yangzi River has been superficial, due to the time limits imposed, and has so far failed to reveal anything of major significance. The selection of this project is therefore seen as a matter of political expediency rather than of any lasting archaeological value.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The red-letter roll call of recent Chinese archaeology'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 60 June 1996