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China archeologists dig up world history

ON a sunny, humid morning at an open area of tropical forest in Honduras, a group of 16 locals and two Chinese men are on an archeological dig. Suddenly a snake slithers in the debris. Frightened and yelling, the locals use spades, sticks and anything to hand to scare the snake away.

To Li Xinwei, an archeologist from Beijing, the red-skinned snake was similar to a Lycodon rufozonatus he had seen in fields at home. But from the speech and gestures of the head worker, who was wielding a machete, he realized the snake was extremely poisonous. A bite on the arm might require cutting off the limb to save the victim’s life.

That was in November 2015. Li and his colleague were on an excavation under an agreement signed with the Honduran government more than a year before. The five-year scheme was a cooperative project between the Institute of Archeology of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (IACASS) and Honduras Institute of Anthropology and History. The Anthropology Department of Harvard University also had a part.

Under the project, Chinese archeologists were expected to excavate and reconstruct Group 8N-11, a sub-royal elite residential compound, in Copan, Honduras.

Not long after, they unearthed carvings of serpent-headed supernatural birds with outstretched shell-shaped wings and maize-like god heads. This reflected the theme of death and rebirth of the maize god, a common belief among the ancient Mayans.

At the Society for American Archeology’s annual meeting this year in Vancouver in late March, Li Xinwei, director of the IACASS Honduras team, shared the findings. His presentation won warm applause from the international audience.

The serpent-headed bird resembled a common Chinese dragon-head icon, which reminded Li of the late Chinese archeologist Kwang-chih Chang, who believed that American and Chinese civilizations probably shared pan-Pacific cultural genes and were different development from the same ancestor.

“We cannot understand the special characteristics of our own civilization without understanding the characteristics of other civilizations,” Li said.

Copan is the first of the Chinese archeologists’ major foreign explorations. The Temple of Montu in Luxor, Egypt, and the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi in Haryana, India, are prospective destinations. In recent years, China has sent archeological teams to Central, West and Southeast Asia, and to Kenya.

In March, the CASS Research Centre of World Archeology was inaugurated under director Wang Wei.

A category of new archeological awards was set up in 2016 to recognize Chinese archeologists’ remarkable achievements in foreign excavations. Last year, the top award went to the Mingtepa project, a joint operation between IACASS and counterparts in Uzbekistan.

The foreign excavations coincide with the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by China in 2013. The initiative involves the expansion of infrastructure and trade networks to connect Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient trade routes. Many foreign destinations are along the ancient Silk Road and such endeavors have strong support from the government, Wang said.

Wang led the first team to Copan in July 2014, accompanied by William Fash, a Harvard University archeologist who started excavating in Honduras in the late 1970s.

Although China came into the picture fairly late, Fash said he had great confidence in Chinese archeologists’ abilities and strongly believed they would contribute to the study of Mayan civilization.

In the Mingtepa project, Chinese archeologists employed a unique China-made tool known as “Luoyang spade.”

Through five excavations, they successfully broadened the excavation site size and proved that over 2,000 years ago Mingtepa was not simply a provisional garrison fort for nomads, but a fully functional castle, the largest in the Fergana Valley.

Li’s team also used drone cameras, high resolution professional software and 3D modeling. Their work proved more efficient and accurate than established local practices in recording the location, topology and properties of units of the excavation grid.

The Mayans often built over existing sites, a testament to their belief in life-cycle theory. For the 8N-11, Li adopted the conventional approach of tunneling. He was careful to examine and record the colors and properties of the soil.

A little over a year later, Li had a clear picture of four main stages of construction, destruction and reconstruction of the 8N-11 complex structure. He was able to answer many questions related to the development of divine kingship, expressions of cosmology, roads, architecture and sculptures, and to conjecture about the causes of the collapse of Mayan dynastic rule.

Chinese archeologists are achieving positive results in other countries. A Kenyan project undertaken by a team with Peking University’s School of Archeology and Museology has not only made a fruitful survey of ceramic exports from China to Africa, but also uncovered, through excavations at five coastal sites, a large quantity of ancient relics, which put the existence of the early Malindi Kingdom at around the 9th and 10th centuries.

Chinese scholars also proved the region accommodated an iron smelting industry and was an important manufacturing base for iron products in the early trading era of the Indian Ocean. The finding was well received by Kenyan scholars, who hailed it as a great advance in the study of the Swahili coast of Africa.

“One of the main purposes of the archaeological projects is to get a world perspective in our research on the development of societies, to appreciate and share the beauties of other cultures,” Li said.

At Copan, Li makes effort to learn Spanish. By mastering the local language, he hopes he can respond more rapidly next time when an incident occurs. He also wishes to continue working on the Mayan culture after the current project winds up in 2019.

“The American archeologists have committed to the Maya study for more than 100 years now. We can do the same,” he said, “The serene pyramids scattered in the tropical forest are beckoning.”


 

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