Three Gorges Probe

Ancient town faces a watery grave

Kelly Haggart

July 11, 2002

Archeologists scrambling to excavate a well-preserved Song dynasty town due to be submerged by the Three Gorges reservoir next year have so far completed only a fraction of the work, the Yancheng Evening News reports.


Archeologists scrambling to excavate a well-preserved ancient town due to be submerged by the Three Gorges reservoir next year have so far completed only a fraction of the work, the Yancheng Evening News (Yancheng wanbao) reports.

The basic layout of the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) town, located in Badong county 100 kilometres upstream of the Three Gorges dam, can now be clearly seen. But archeologists who have been working at the 100,000-square-metre site for years have only excavated about one-tenth of it, according to Deng Hui, vice-director of the Wuhan Archeological Institute.

Badong faces "a particularly pressing situation," the newspaper said, because an estimated 80 per cent of the 130 historic sites that have been identified in the county will go under water when the Three Gorges reservoir is filled to the 135-metre level on June 1 next year.

Mr. Deng said the diverse items now being found in Badong, many in good condition, go back as far as the Stone Age and provide crucial information about China’s early history and culture.

Archeologists have been working in the area since 1995, but with less than a year left before the deluge, many sites will still be unexplored when the water rises, the newspaper said in its June 22 report.

The excavations started far too late and have been hobbled by limited funds, museum director Li Qingrong was quoted as saying. To make matters worse, heavy rain has slowed the work down in the past two months.

Local officials throughout the area were unhappy with the central government’s original plan for cultural salvage work in the area to be flooded by the Three Gorges reservoir, which will eventually stretch for more than 600 km behind the dam. The plan listed only 44 sites as being of historical significance, when the real figure was known to exceed 2,000, the Guangzhou-based Yancheng Evening News said. Under growing pressure, the central authorities increased the number of sites deemed worth excavating to just 200.

As the race to salvage an important chunk of Chinese history speeds up, concerns are also growing about the safety of the cultural relics once they are unearthed. Construction has only recently begun on a new museum that will house the relics from Song town, and so for now precious artifacts are being stored in garbage bags in a house rented from a local farmer, the newspaper reported.

Journalist and environmentalist Dai Qing said earlier this year that the low priority given to the archeological salvage work "has handed thieves and smugglers a golden opportunity to steal treasures and sell them on the black market."

According to Beijing-based, one of China’s most popular Web sites, the archeological teams now working in the Three Gorges area are attempting to accomplish in mere months work that would normally take 50 years. Officials in charge of the operation have estimated that, at best, the teams will be able to excavate less than 10 per cent of the sites they find.

Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, a leading American scholar on early Chinese history, says the last-ditch efforts to excavate important archeological sites in the region are "too small, too slow and too late," and she laments the impending loss of a cultural treasure trove.

"Archeologists are just beginning to explore sites in the middle Yangtze River Valley. If given time and opportunity to excavate in this untapped area, it would be possible to flesh out how it contributed to the beginning of Chinese history and to civilization," she said.

"This area of eastern Sichuan and western Hubei is important in early Chinese history, but basically unknown to the world at large and within China. Until now, the Yellow River Valley to the north has been the main focus of archeological attention. … But the Yangtze River Valley is clearly also a major cradle of Chinese civilization, and it is such a pity that this part of south China is not well understood archeologically and will soon be submerged forever."

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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