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Celebrations mark a century of archaeological exploration
Last Updated: 2021-10-22 08:32 | China Daily
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Village heralds grand opening of 5,000-year-old park ruins site

A village in Henan province has been celebrating after many of China's leading archaeologists gathered there on Sunday to mark the opening of a new venue.

Some locals in Yangshao village, Sanmenxia, are unaware of the area's academic significance, but there was dancing, and countless smiles, as the Yangshao Village National Archaeological Ruins Park made its debut.

There are many reasons to celebrate and pay homage to the generations of archaeologists who over the past 100 years have devoted themselves to exploring the origins of Chinese civilization with their trowels.

The site, which is more than 5,000 years old, was discovered a century ago, heralding the beginnings of modern Chinese archaeology.

Chen Xingcan, director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Archaeology, said, "If the distribution of various prehistoric cultures in China can be compared to a flower with layers of petals, Yangshao was at the center of the blossom."

From October to December 1921, Swedish scholar Johan Gunnar Andersson, a geology consultant for the Chinese government, led the first round of excavations in Yangshao at 17 locations over 36 days. A Neolithic culture best recognized for its painted pottery was unearthed, astonishing academics. It was later called Yangshao Culture, the nation's first named prehistoric archaeological culture.

"Yangshao was thus the start of scientific research into the Neolithic period of China," Chen said.

This period, which in China dates back between 4,000 and 10,000 years, has contributed many of the country's biggest archaeological findings. A list of the nation's top 100 such discoveries in the past 100 years released on Monday contains 33 entries from the Neolithic period.

Nevertheless, before Andersson's findings, people had little understanding of this time.

"Some people even thought that China had no Neolithic period," Chen said. "So, discovery of the Yangshao village site ended such thoughts and provided great inspiration for Chinese scholars, building their confidence."

Chen said the nation's archaeologists were encouraged to look into the country's distant past beyond surviving historical documents discovered underground.

Several milestone findings were made nationwide in the 1920s, including the Yinxu ruins in Henan and the Zhoukoudian site in Beijing. Both are now UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Series of excavations

Over the past century, starting in Yangshao, a comprehensive picture of Yangshao Culture, dating back 5,000 to 7,000 years, has emerged across China, mainly along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River. Related heritage sites were found in 10 provincial-level administrative regions, scattered over a total area of more than 1 million square kilometers. The border area of Henan, Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces was the core of Yangshao Culture.

Wang Wei, president of the Archaeological Society of China, said:"This culture is thus the longest-lasting and most widely influential type of prehistoric culture in China. Covering such a wide area, it also brought a cultural mix and created a foundation for early-stage Chinese civilization at a pivotal time."

Thanks to continuous excavations, more discoveries have been made.

For example, at the Banpo site in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi, Yangshao Culture dating back 7,000 years was unearthed. The Miaodigou site in Sanmenxia, which is 6,000 years old, reflects the peak time for this culture. Both milestone sites were discovered in the 1950s.

One discovery at the Xipo site in Lingbao, Henan, amazed archaeologists. Architectural ruins with surrounding corridors, covering 516 square meters and including a 204-sq-m indoor space, were unearthed in 2002.

Wei Xingtao, a researcher at the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology, said similar "big houses" covering more than 100 sq m were also unearthed from September last year to June at Beiyangping, another site near Xipo. Key discoveries included the carbonized remains of wooden columns and beams.

According to Wei, these buildings were probably not used for people's homes, but to host highly important rituals or used as tribal assembly halls.

"The findings are significant for us in reconstructing how prehistoric architecture appeared in China. They also reflect a highly developed society," Wei said.

In Yangshao village, a series of excavations restarted in August after a break of about 40 years. The ongoing fourth excavation in the village is for an academic program aimed at further discovering cultures along the Yellow River.

Newly found relics span the entire Yangshao Culture period. In addition to residential compounds, roads and tombs, many artifacts have been found, including pottery, jade and items made from stone, bone, and ivory.

Andersson's team was only equipped with simple digging tools, but Wei and his colleagues are much more fortunate. Thanks to interdisciplinary research, many laboratory findings which could not have been imagined 100 years ago, have begun to surface.

For example, archaeologists took samples of fibroin, an insoluble protein, from unearthed human remains, which showed that the bodies were possibly shrouded in silk. Analysis of earthen blocks taken from the architectural foundations showed they were made from material with components almost the same as those used for modern concrete, Wei said.

Starch granules and yeast were found at the bottom of some pots, providing evidence of alcohol.

Wei said, "The alcohol may have been made from millet, rice and other plants. This offers us direct proof of alcohol consumption in the core area of Yangshao Culture.

"The new excavations have greatly enhanced our understanding of human settlement and evolution of the site. More important, our current research with new technologies is also honoring the centenary of Yangshao studies and the birth of modern archaeology in China." 

Painted pottery

No matter the number of discoveries during archaeological research in recent years, painted pottery remains a typical symbol of Yangshao Culture.

This pottery, with hand-drawn patterns of smooth lines and various forms, is often hailed by scholars as "the first artistic wave in the prehistoric period of China". The Miaodigou site and the area under its influence are generally considered to represent the highest-level achievements of Yangshao painted pottery, which was found as far as the middle reaches of the Yangtze River.

Li Shuicheng, an archaeology professor at Peking University, said, "During the boom time in Miaodigou, Yangshao Culture entered an era of unity with vast influence, which can be seen from painted pottery unearthed elsewhere."

Decorations on Yangshao painted pottery also include petals and patterns of an arc triangle and circular dots. Other designs such as birds, fish, human faces and flames are commonly seen.

In researchers' eyes, these designs are more than mere decorations.

Ma Mingzhi, an associate researcher at the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology, said that the designs may provide clues to a belief system, while the human face design is a symbol of witchcraft and priests.

"Birds and fish may have acted as ambassadors between the people and heaven," he said. "These patterns were not casually drawn on pottery to look good, and their use followed rigid rules involving the gods. Many variants await further clarification.

"Such a system could have influenced the worshipping of jade in China, and later inscriptions on bronzeware," he added.

Zhang Hai, deputy dean of the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University, said painted pottery only comprises about 10 percent of excavated Yangshao Culture ceramics.

"These items might not have been for daily use, but were probably set aside for special occasions," Zhang said. "Scholars' explanations of the designs still vary, but most of us tend to agree that they represent some shared ideologies."

Zhang said the expansion of Yangshao painted pottery accompanied the planting of millet, a fundamental and indigenous crop in North China.

"Due to such economic reasons, it was easier for people elsewhere to accept the ideology of Yangshao Culture and thus form an early-stage Chinese cultural circle," he said.

However, after Andersson's findings a century ago, this exquisite colored pottery triggered heated debate among scholars on the origins of Chinese culture.

In modern-day Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, an archaeological culture, Cucuteni-Trypillia, is known for its decorated pottery. It had designs similar to those of its Yangshao counterparts, so Andersson argued that Chinese culture came from the West.

However, discoveries in West China in the following decades put an end to such thoughts. Sites unearthed much later than those containing examples of Yangshao Culture were found in Gansu province and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

The pottery discovered at these sites was apparently influenced by Yangshao Culture, indicating that the culture spread from Central China.

Li, the Peking University professor, said: "Subsequent cultures were incubated by Yangshao. That trend kept rolling westward, while the central plains of China absorbed cultural elements from the west, such as the use of jade, turquoise and bronze, providing a cornerstone for the Silk Road later," he said.

Still, an explanation was needed for the highly similar pottery of Cucuteni-Trypillia and Yangshao cultures, which existed around the same period, but at locations 7,000 km apart.

As a first step, in 2019, a group of experts from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences joined excavations in Dobrovat, a village in northeastern Romania where Cucuteni culture was discovered.

Li Xinwei, a researcher at the institute, said many clues are still missing, and other objects unearthed from the two cultures vary.

"However, archaeological findings clearly show that many ancient agrarian cultures across the Eurasian grasslands had a tradition of making painted pottery," Li Xinwei said. "Chinese culture continued and thrived, but some others didn't."

For example, he said that after Cucuteni-Trypillia Culture died out, there was no noticeable social development in the region until the rise of the Roman Empire.

"Even if we cannot prove there was a prehistoric, intercultural communication route spanning such a long distance, the studies had high value," he said. "We can better understand the characteristics of our own culture as it developed."

New findings

In recent decades, many other examples of Neolithic culture and regional civilizations dating back about 5,000 years have been found across China.

As a result, the belief that the Central Plains were the core area during the early phase of Chinese civilization has been challenged by some scholars.

In recent years, however, deeper research as part of Archaeology China, a national-level project, appears to have produced fresh thoughts, following many new findings.

The Shuanghuaishu site in Gongyi, Henan, is arguably the most rewarding of the latest discoveries.

Dating back some 5,300 years during the later period of Yangshao Culture, this site, which covers more than 1.17 sq km, was listed among the top 10 archaeological discoveries in China last year.

Archaeologists unearthed a city with three layers of moats, public graveyards, large-scale remains of a residential area and sacrificial altars, among other key heritage findings.

Wei, the researcher, said the discovery of an exquisite ivory silkworm sculpture provides key reference points for those studying the origins of silk.

"Apparently, the location of this city was carefully chosen and it bore the features of a national capital," Wei said. "This finding fills a gap in a crucial period of time at an important location.

"Yangshao Culture entered an era of civilization in its later period," he said. "Its bears the key genes of Chinese civilization throughout history."

Han Jianye, an archaeology professor at Renmin University of China, expects in-depth research into Yangshao Culture to better explain Chinese people's thinking in general today.

"Starting with Yangshao Culture, people relied on an agricultural economy and a massively settled community," he said. "A rigid system of rituals was followed and people paid homage to their ancestors.

"Chinese people thus emphasized introversion, harmony and stability, and these characteristics ensure the lasting prosperity of Chinese civilization," he said.

(Editor:Wang Su)

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Celebrations mark a century of archaeological exploration
Source:China Daily | 2021-10-22 08:32
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