China strives to become leader in world of archeology

Hannah Gardner, Special for USA TODAY
July 23, 2016

BEIJING — When Chinese archaeologists start work on a buried Bronze Age city in north India this fall, they will be breaking ground in more ways than one.

The dig at Rakhigarhi, 90 miles north west of Delhi, will be the largest China has ever had undertaken outside its borders, the clearest sign yet the communist country is emerging as a global power in the field.

It will also be the first time Chinese archaeologists have been allowed to work in India, a country China fought a war against in 1962.

Cultural outreach is helping to soften Beijing’s image abroad even as China’s expanding global economic and military footprint makes some nations wary.

“We now have the ability to go out and help others with funds, technology and skills,” China’s chief archaeologist Wang Wei said. “We have entered an era of going out into the world.”

Over the past three decades, China has spent billions of dollars creating a massive pool of well-educated, well-equipped, state-employed archaeologists. According to foreign experts, they now are as good as archaeologists from more experienced nations such as the United States, United Kingdom and Germany.

But there is one problem: They only know about China. The communist country has no experts with first-hand knowledge of other ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia or India.

Part of sending mainland archaeologists overseas is an attempt to remedy this.

“Whatever the subject, the top scholars are always American,” said Wang, head of the Archaeology Institute at China’s Academy of Social Sciences. “Our biggest problem is now that we don’t know enough about other countries.”

In some way that isn’t surprising. Archaeology is an expensive field that only really emerged as European powers started amassing foreign colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries.

China’s route was slightly different. It started pursuing archaeology in earnest after the communist revolution of 1949, and its focus was on building a strong national heritage that China’s ethnic Han majority could rally around. The subject also was heavily politicized, with finds always interpreted through a Marxist lens. Non-Han cultures within and outside China were ignored.

“There has always been a strong vein of nationalism in Chinese archaeology,” said Dorian Fuller, executive director of the International Centre for Chinese Heritage and Archaeology at University College London.

Today, Wang said, there is no political influence in Chinese archaeology. But when asked about recent excavations in the South China Sea, he said it is “understandable” that some scholars are using discoveries to enhance China’s position.

For example, China is investing heavily in maritime archaeology in the region to prove that its ships once dominated these waters, where it has identified about 200 wrecks. In 2013, Chinese military planes chased a French archaeologist working with the Philippine government out of the waters.

Wang also conceded that research relating to China’s sensitive border regions — a reference to unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet — Chinese archaeology has a political purpose: to prove that civilization began in the Han-populated plains of east China and spread west to Xinjiang and Tibet, now composed predominantly by other ethnic groups.

“(In these cases) archaeology is it inevitably connected to the state and ethnic minority issues,” he said.

Such issues don’t appear to bother the increasing number of countries willing to cooperate with Chinese archaeologists.

In recent years they have searched for sunken Chinese treasure ships of the coast of Kenya, uncovered an ancient Buddhist temple in Bangladesh and helped excavate Mayan ruins in Honduras — the latter a project led by Harvard University. A project in Egypt is also in the pipeline.

So far, the biggest commitment is India. In addition to Rakhigarhi, Chinese archaeologists are expected to start work at a second Indian site this fall: Sarnath, the place where Buddha gave his first lesson in 6th century B.C.

Each dig will last five years and require teams of five to seven people.

Vasant Shinde, the Indian archaeologist in charge of the dig at Rakhigarhi, said the Chinese teams’ first task will be to survey the 865-acre site using drones and other remote imaging equipment.

Rakhigarhi is thought to be the largest Harappan city in the world but most of it is still buried under the sandy soil of the north Indian state of Haryana.

The Harappan civilization was larger than early civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia and China, but it has not been as intensively researched.

Big questions still remain, such as why it suddenly collapsed around 1,500 B.C., 2,000 years after it emerged, and who its people were.

The last question is particularly sensitive because Hindu groups in India claim the Harappan people are ancestors of modern Indians.

If DNA from the site proves otherwise, it would suggest the current population is not indigenous and the roots of Hinduism are outside India.

“It is a controversial subject. The more data we can find the better,” said Vasant Shinde, the Indian archaeologist leading the dig.

He said he was thrilled when Wang approached him about participating in the dig because India is struggling to protect its rich cultural heritage due to a shortage of archaeologists and modern equipment.

“Take carbon dating machines, for example. A country the size of India should have a dozen. We have two,” he said. “It slows things down.”

He said he hopes this new era of cooperation will give Indian archaeologists access to Chinese sites and materials. Both sides are deeply interested in each other’s Buddhist texts and relics, and the two governments have stressed common cultural ties can build trust.

“Buddhism was born in ancient India, and thrived in ancient China. Exchanges in Buddhism have been vibrant in our histories,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said while on a trip to India in September 2014.

Relations between the two nations soured shortly after India became independent from Britain in 1947, and China came under communist rule two years later. Their 2,200-mile-long border through the Himalayas is largely disputed.

Shinde said such conflicts don’t concern him and Wang.

“True archaeologists don’t care about politics,” he said. “We are dealing with a time before there were national borders.”

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