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No Rest for History's Riches

For some dedicated Chinese archaeologists, this year's Spring Festival didn't include any time off.

But their hard work has yielded a number of new finds from excavation sites.

That's the good news, experts say, but it comes with some bad, including the collapse of an ancient city wall in western China.

Last November, archaeologists launched a large-scale excavation project in a group of tombs in Hepu County in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The site dates back approximately 2,000 years.

The No 6 tomb belongs to the imperial Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). There, the historians recently unearthed a complete bronze carriage pulled by a bronze horse. It is the first time such a bronze artifact has been discovered in Southern China, said Xiong Zhaoming, archaeologist in charge of the excavation.

Bronze carriages pulled by horses were a symbol of power and wealth in the Han Dynasty as funerary objects. The example in this tomb reveals that the owner of the tomb -- a female -- was likely of a high social status, Xiong said.

The No 6 tomb is 7 meters long with a width of 4.6 meters and a height of 7 meters, and is one of the largest Han tombs unearthed in the area. Besides the bronze carriage and horse, researchers found other artifacts, including two bronze oxen, bronze lamps and bronze cups, more than 100 coins, and a silver ring. Covering an area of about 69 square kilometers, the site has nearly 7,000 tombs of the Han Dynasty. The archaeologists so far have excavated only 400.

Bricks with molded designs

In southwest China's Chongqing municipality, the yield from another Han tomb has brought similar pleasures to archaeologists.

From a tomb of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), archaeologists have unearthed more than 20 pieces of brick relief.

Lin Bizhong, a noted archaeologist with the Chongqing Municipal Archaeological Team, said the discovery is the first time bricks with molded designs have been unearthed in Chongqing.

Previously, such bricks have been excavated from Sichuan Province tombs in Southwest China, and have been included as relics under State protection.

Lin acknowledged that the brick-and-stone-structured tomb, from which brick reliefs were unearthed, had been robbed, so they did not find anything valuable in the tomb besides the bricks.

Designs on the bricks include horse-drawn carriages accompanied by an honor guard, the image of Fuxi -- the sun god in ancient China -- and images of high-nosed and hollow-eyed people, who might be of varied ethnic groups or foreigners.

According to experts, designs of horse-drawn carriages with honor guards indicated that the tomb owner was of high social status, bricks with the image of Fuxi are important materials for studying religion and culture at that time, and the images of foreigners reflect cultural exchanges between East and West in the Eastern Han Dynasty. Moreover, archaeologists also are finding traces of red color on the bricks and hold that the color may be traces of paint.

Copper coins

While many old tombs have been robbed, some were intact where found.

In a tomb that dates back to the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, archaeologists have unearthed 50 copper coins.

The valuable coins, imprinted with "Zhenglong" (known in history as the reign of Emperor Wanyan Liang between 1156 and 1161), were found in a well-preserved tomb in the city of Xianyang, close to the provincial capital, Xi'an.

Archaeologists have also unearthed porcelain pieces, including a headrest imprinted with a poem about rain and wind, two exquisite pottery vases and two pottery kettles, and a round agate in the tomb, but the wooden coffin with a skeleton lying on its back was badly decayed.

Experts say the finding is extremely rare since the Jin Dynasty lasted for only 119 years and did not dominate central China.

The Jin Dynasty was founded by Wanyan Aguda in 1115 and was conquered in 1234 by Mongol nomads who later founded the imperial Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

Imperial kiln

Of course, not all Chinese archaeologists are looking for old tombs.

At Jingdezhen, a city renowned for its porcelain since the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in east China's Jiangxi Province, archaeologists have discovered two important sites during an excavation of an imperial kiln.

The excavation of the imperial kiln, which was used from the Ming (1368-1644) to the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, covered an area of 788 square meters.

One of the sites contained relics from the Jiangxi Porcelain Company in the late Qing Dynasty. Founded in 1902, the company was the first modern enterprise co-operatively run by officials and businessmen at Jingdezhen.

The second site unearthed was a group of kilns of the early Ming Dynasty.

"This is the largest group of kilns at an imperial site ever discovered in China," said Li Yiping, deputy director of the local porcelain and archaeological institute. "It provides valuable evidences for research on porcelain making skills at imperial kilns in the early Ming Dynasty."

A 10-centimetre-tall red glazed cup with a 16-centimetre-wide mouth drew the attention of many archaeologists.

"The seal 'Made in Yongle Reign', the reign of a Ming emperor, at the center of the cup written in zhuanshu, a Chinese calligraphy style, is the most distinct ever found in the world," said Li.

"Even today's modern techniques cannot create such a vibrant red glaze," Li added.

Imperial kilns were the imperial porcelain workshops of China's royalty. Since the Yuan emperor Kublai Khan established a porcelain bureau named Fuliang in 1278, Jingdezhen served as the location of the imperial kilns of the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming and Qing dynasties, for 632 years, until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

Covering an area of 50,000 square meters, Jingdezhen boasts the largest imperial porcelain workshops with the longest history and the most exquisite workmanship in China.

So far over 3,000 porcelain treasures have been restored from fragments unearthed at Jingdezhen.

Collapsing wall

While a number of historical and cultural relics have been discovered and protected because of archaeologists' hard work, some elements of Chinese heritage are facing an uncertain future because of carelessness.

A large part of a city wall at the ancient Gaochang city site in Turpan of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region collapsed recently as a result of long-term irrigation of nearby farmlands.

Mostly grapes were being grown on the ancient wall, and the wall base was destroyed by long-term watering, said a deputy of the local People's Congress of Turpan Prefecture.

"The original appearance of the city site is suffering from damage done by local people and visitors, such as digging soil from the site to fertilize farmlands, digging caves, climbing and trampling underfoot," said the deputy.

"Moreover, natural factors such as wind erosion, rain saturation and the great variation between day and night temperatures have all contributed to the break-up and collapse of the city wall," the deputy said.

Built in about 100 BC, the Gaochang city ruins cover an area of 2.2 million square meters. Famous for its large number of cultural relics -- especially classic manuscripts, frescoes and statues of Huihu, early Uygurs -- the city site was listed as a major historical and cultural site under State protection in 1961.

(China Daily February 4, 2004)

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