China’s archaeologists becoming major players at excavations around the world

Updated 2017-10-12 11:03:54 Global Times

Chinese archaeologists started a joint excavation at the Kimengich Site in western Kenya into the origin of modern humans with the National Museum of Kenya around October 1, the Xinhua News Agency reported. This marks yet another major international archaeological excavation that China has taken part in after Copán, a Mayan archaeological site in western Honduras.

Aside from capturing the attention of foreign media such as USA Today, which published an article in 2016 titled China Strives to Become Leader in World of Archaeology, China's archaeological efforts and international cooperation over the past five years have been considered major achievements in relic preservation, according to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) in an article Cultural Relics Work and Achievements since the 18th CPC National Congress.

Unlike decades ago when the leading forces in most of the major archaeological discoveries worldwide were Western experts from countries such as the US and the UK, over the past few years an increasing number of archaeological teams from China have been participating in joint excavation projects overseas, especially in key areas where some of the world's most ancient civilizations were born.

Apart from the Kimengich and Copán projects, Chinese teams have also worked at the Precinct of Montu, a part of the ruins of the Karnak temple complex in southern Egypt, and key sites at Sarnath in northeast India, the place where the Buddha is said to have given his first sermon.

Many of these projects kicked off within the last five years, such as the Mintepa project, a Chinese-Uzbekistan archaeological project that began in 2012, and the Sarnath and the Precinct of Montu projects in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

Increased exchanges

This trend is the result of China's increasing economic strength and the country's archeological circle's growing interest in conducting exchanges with their foreign counterparts, according to Zhu Yanshi, director of the Department of Han to Tang Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Institute of Archaeology and the Mintepa project's Chinese team leader, in an interview with the Global Times in April.

Unlike today, Chinese voices went unheard in the world of archaeology for a long time. It was not until the 1980s when modern Chinese archaeologists began regular exchanges with their foreign colleagues that some of them were invited to participate in international projects initiated by foreign archaeological institutions.

Later, as exchanges continued in the 1990s, China's cultural heritage watchdog SACH started to allow Western archaeological teams, majorly from the US and Japan, into the mainland as part of joint excavations and research projects at some of the world's best known sites such as the Yin Ruins in Shangqiu, Central China's Henan Province, and the Niya Site in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

After continued government and academic investment, Chinese archaeological technologies and talents continued to mature. Finally, a major breakthrough occurred in 2005 when the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute took part in China's first country-to-country joint excavation overseas.

The joint excavation took place at the Phùng Nguyên site in Vietnam, where a number of jade vessels had been unearthed that "were believed by Vietnamese scholars to possibly be related to Sichuan Province's Sanxingdui Site." Due to this possible connection, the Vietnamese institution overseeing the site invited the Sichuan institute to send a team to work side by side with Vietnamese experts.

Later that year, a joint archaeological project between the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and a number of Mongolian archaeological institutions was launched to investigate over a hundred of archaeological sites in Mongolia.

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