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Archaeology and the Study of Ancient China

Terra Cotta Army of the First Emperor

Excavation photo: Terra Cotta Army of the First Emperor. Qin Dynasty, 221‒210 BCE. Litong, Shaanxi Province. Courtesy Hamilton Photography, Seattle.

What is archaeology?
Archaeology is the study of the material remains of humanity’s past. Excavated materials, along with other historical objects and text records, form the primary source material on Ancient China.

When did archaeology begin in China?
All the major dynasties, beginning with the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) kept historical records, documenting everything up until that time. These official histories were the primary source for Chinese history until a century ago. During the Song dynasty (960 CE–1279 CE), there was a serious effort to study the past (jinshixue – literally ”metal/stone study”) through objects and related texts. This resulted in a number of catalogues, including the first classification of ancient bronzes. Modern archaeology got underway in the late 19th century with the discovery of oracle bones, leading to the excavation of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1300–ca. 1050) tombs at Anyang. The writing on the oracle bones verified the existence of the Shang kings, which had been chronicled in the ancient historical texts. Since then, there has been a close relationship between the study of textual sources and archaeology.

Unlike other countries, China never had a huge influx of foreign archaeologists, with the notable exception of Swedish geologist, Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874–1960). He was involved in the famous discovery of homo erectus fossils at the cave of Zhoukoudian, southwest of Beijing, and excavated the site of Yangshao in Henan, one of the major cultural groups of the early Neolithic. The Academia Sinica, founded in 1928, excavated most of the tombs at Anyang, but moved to Taiwan in 1949 when the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists. Two institutions that took its place were the Bureau of Cultural Relics and the Institute of Archaeology. From 1962–82, the Institute was headed by Xia Nai. During his tenure, archaeologists began to interpret finds on the basis of type (building a chronological sequence on the basis of changes in the physical features of what one finds). Work was primarily concentrated on the Yellow river area, and interpretation followed the Marxist view of history. Recent Chinese archaeology has de-emphasized Marxist ideological concerns in favor of a more regional focus, with new areas of research focusing on the east coast, Sichuan province and the lower Yangzi region. Current archaeology has been advanced by the lifting of rules barring foreign archaeologists from working in China. However, the pace of industrial and economic development in China has escalated, resulting in increased rescue archaeology–rushing in to salvage what has been unearthed through building projects and trying to study as much as one can while temporarily abating development.

What methods do archaeologists use to locate possible sites and decipher finds?
Archaeologists use scientific methods by collecting and analysing data, conducting experiments and then forming hypotheses and conclusions. These are updated as new data emerges and over time, general patterns and trends emerge. Although the public is captivated by the idea of spectacular finds, most archaeological work is uneventful. The emphasis is on careful and systematic study of the site, and then publication of the research.

One of the most basic principles of archaeology is that of stratigraphy–the idea that layers of soil reveal layers of time. Because the history of China extends back thousands of years, habitations have built up on top of each other, creating layers or ‘strata’ of history in the ground. Objects found at a higher level, for example, would be newer than objects found below that level.

Since the middle of the 20th century, archaeology has developed a number of other techniques such as the study of organic remains. This allows one to interpret a site in terms of the human response to the natural environment. Photography, and more recently satellite-based imaging systems support documentation and mapping procedures. Surveying for sites is assisted by the use of core samples and remote sensing. Dating has been advanced by the use of radio-carbon and thermoluminescense.Modern archaeology is often carried out by teams of experts. Analysis of an site might involve the input of field archaeologists, art historians, conservators, geologists and other scientists. Teams of Chinese and foreign archaeologists are now working together. 

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