CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 2, June 2005


Controversy Surrounding the Archaeological Top Ten | China Heritage Quarterly


For the past 15 years, a panel drawn from China's leading archaeologists and cultural heritage authorities has selected the "Top Ten Archaeological Discoveries" of the previous year from a list of nominated archaeological sites and excavation projects. The awards are designed to draw attention to scientific archaeological work, and the selected projects are intended to not reflect the spectacular nature of the discoveries themselves but rather the scientific rigour of the excavation and the intellectual significance of the finds. Rather than being prompted by the "treasure" principle, the panel makes its selections on the basis of whether an excavation has been properly conducted and scientific knowledge of the past has been advanced. In reality, however, the awards function like any competition and immense kudos accrues to the team who conducts a winning excavation, as well as to the location where the excavation is conducted.

Prior to 2004 selections were often dictated by the perceived centrality of the discoveries to a vaguely defined narrative titled "the history of the Chinese nation", and many major finds of great scientific value outside the Central Plains area were overlooked. Moreover, the selection panel had also shrunk to a handful of men who exercised a dominant role over the profession; critics regarded these awards as emanating without adequate professional consultation from a clique within the State Bureau of Cultural Relics, now known as the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH).

Taking this criticism to heart, SACH's selection panel in 2004 stressed the importance of discoveries in peripheral and remote areas. Moreover, in response to professional dissatisfaction with the selection process, the selections in 2004 and 2005 were cautiously preceded by a number of seminars around the country introducing the nominated sites to professionals at various institutions. At a meeting in early February 2004, the panel, responding to criticism that their decisions were not transparent, announced that a new document outlining the selection procedures would be released. Among the luminaries attending that meeting were Su Bai, the honorary director of the China Society of Archaeology (CSA) and a retired Peking University professor; Xu Pingfang, the incumbent director of CSA and, two vice-directors of CSA, Zhang Zhongpei, formerly of the Palace Museum, and Wen Yanming. The CSA is what is described in China as a "mass organisation", although such groups are better understood as professional bodies only nominally not under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control. Founded in 1959, the CSA has - since 1983 - produced an annual yearbook chronicling developments in archaeology.

The rest of the selection panel is almost entirely drawn from SACH - Huang Jinglüe, head of the Administration's Archaeology Group (Kaogu zu), Gu Yucai, head of its Cultural Relics Protection Section (Wenwu baohu si), Li Peisi, head of its Archaeology Department (Kaogu chu), and Zhang Tunsheng, head and general editor of the administration's newspaper China Cultural Relics News, as well as Xie Bing, deputy director of the paper, and Cao Bingwu, deputy editor-in-chief.

On 19 April 2005, the selection committee, expanded this year to twenty persons, announced its choice of the "Top Ten Archaeological Discoveries" in China for 2004 from the prospective list of 22 nominations. Arranged in chronological order, the Top Ten are:

  1. The prehistoric remains found at Yixian in Hebei province;/li>
  2. The neolithic graves found at Qingliangsi in Shanxi province;
  3. The remains of the palace grounds at Erlitou in Henan province;
  4. The tombs discovered at Xiaohe in the Lopnor region of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region;
  5. The remains of an ancient city from the Western Zhou Dynasty found in Hunan province;
  6. A tomb of a nobleman from the Yue State during the Spring and Autumn Period in Wuxi city, Jiangsu province;
  7. The remains of a city gate in Liaoning province;
  8. The two mausoleums from the Five Dynasties period discovered in Guangzhou;
  9. The remains of an imperial street of the Southern Song Dynasty in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province; and,
  10. The remains of a winery of the Qing-Republican period in Sichuan province.

This year's selection has been much debated. A number of archaeologists have specifically challenged the last selection, and questioned why a number of other excavations were not selected, especially the excavation of the Western Zhou site at Zhougongmiao (Temple of the Duke of Zhou), the Jingdezhen Ming-Qing Imperial Kilns, and the Zhengzhou-Dashigu Xia dynasty site.

The failure to select the much publicised Zhougongmiao excavation for the Top Ten, and, initially, even for the list of 22 nominations, has been particularly controversial, not only among archaeologists, but among the general public. This excavation received more media attention in 2004 than any other excavation, and so the selection committee may have felt it needed no more. However, the decision only succeeded in discrediting the committee in the eyes of the media and the general public, and indirectly placed the entire archaeological profession in an opaque light.

The Zhougongmiao site, located 6.5 km from today's Qishan county seat under the administration of Baoji municipality in Shaanxi province, is named for a temple constructed by the first Tang dynasty ruler, Emperor Gaozu, to honour the Duke of Zhou, historically held to have instituted the ritual system according to which the Zhou dynasty was governed. The site was discovered quite by chance. In December 2003 when a team from the Archaeology Department of Peking University's Institute of Cultural Relics and Museology was working in another part of Baoji, Associate-Professor (now Professor) Xu Tianjin went with four students to Zhougongmiao to conduct a trial survey. There he discovered an inscribed oracle bone in a trench and realised the significance of the location. After several hours of further digging the group chanced upon two more inscribed oracle bones, one with a text running to 38 characters, the other inscribed with 17 characters. The oracle bones were identified as clearly belonging to the Zhou dynasty, but the longest inscription previously found on a Zhou dynasty oracle bone had only run to 32 characters. Moreover these oracle bones were the first ever found to be inscribed on the dorsal carapace of a tortoise, rather than the softer plastrons of the underside. The discovery of oracle bones suggested that a royal archive or prognostication site was located in the vicinity.

In March 2004, a joint team from Peking University and the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute began excavating at Zhougongmiao and within a fairly short space of time discovered 760 more oracle bones, of which 80 bore inscriptions. Three bore the name "Duke of Zhou", the first time his name has appeared in any oracle bone inscriptions.

In May 2004, the excavators found a section of tamped earth approximately eight metres in length, an indication that a very large tomb was located in the vicinity. In the following months a total of 22 graves were located; ten of them had four entrance passages, while 14 of them had accompanying sacrificial horse and chariot burial pits. This sumptuous style of burial indicated that the graves belonged to zhuhou (feudatory lords) above the first degree of feudatory rank. With the discovery of building bricks and a tamped earth surrounding wall, it was clear that this was the highest ranking Western Zhou cemetery found to date in China, and was possibly the first royal cemetery of the period to have been discovered. The veteran archaeologist Zou Heng suggested that this was possibly the family cemetery of the Duke of Zhou himself, the man who established the political institutions of the Zhou dynasty. Others suggested that it could be a cemetery of the Zhou kings. Nevertheless, in terms of Zhou ritual regulations, many Zhou dynasty burials have not conformed to the rules and have been far more sumptuous in burial goods and tomb dimensions than the rites would have permitted the tomb occupants of a particular rank.

To proceed further with a royal excavation, archaeologists have to apply to the central government for permission and, in May 2004, Peking University and the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute lodged a joint application to excavate with SACH. Such permission is often withheld, because it is believed that excavations of royal tombs must proceed cautiously. SACH is also very reluctant to allow the excavation of a royal tomb by the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute to go ahead, in case it provides a precedent for excavating the Qianling mausoleum of Empress Wu Zetian and her emperor husband, believed not to have been disturbed by tomb robbers, and even of the main burial chambers at Qin Shihuang's mausoleum, two undertakings that people in Shaanxi have been urging for years but which SACH and the central government have long opposed. The excavation of the royal tomb at Laoshan in Beijing would not have been approved if the application to excavate had stated that it was, in fact, a royal tomb. It transpired that the Laoshan tomb had been stripped by robbers, but this was not realised at the time of excavation and the live televised broadcast of the final stages of the excavation was a media event that fizzed.

Zhang Zhongpei, one of the members of the Top Ten committee, believed that haste was inappropriate at Zhougongmiao. However, another school of thought argued that the site was difficult to secure from tomb robbers, and, as the area had been subject to tomb robbery from early in the twentieth century onwards, it was wisest to proceed with the excavation as quickly as possible. More than 80% of excavations conducted in China are categorised as "salvage" excavations, and if a tomb is found to have been robbed, a salvage excavation is almost invariably approved if costs permit. SACH relented on the Zhougongmiao case by striking a compromise; in September 2004, SACH approved the excavation of two tombs only, in order to shed further light on the nature of the cemetery as a whole.

In October, the excavation of tombs nos. 32 and 18 began. Although tomb no. 32 had been extensively damaged by tomb robbers, tomb no. 18, with four entrance passages, seemed untouched. However, in December the team discovered three holes made by robbers in tomb no. 18. All is now quiet on the Western Zhou front at Zhougongmiao for the time being. However, but as far as the public is concerned Zhougongmiao was definitely the most interesting archaeological excavation of 2004. [BGD]