Chinese Archaeology: Past, Present, and Future

Sixth Tone invited three archaeologists to share their perspectives on the field’s development and future prospects.

On the morning of December 14, China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage made a stunning announcement: Chinese archaeologists had identified the “Great Tomb of Jiangcun,” near modern-day Xi’an in the northwestern Shaanxi Province, as the resting place of Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. – A.D. 220) — one of the most renowned and popular ancient Chinese monarchs.

The news capped a banner 12 months for Chinese archaeology. In March, archaeologists uncovered over 500 relics from the mysterious Sanxingdui culture in what is now the southwestern Sichuan province. In September, a team led by David Dian Zhang published a paper detailing an even more remarkable find from the Tibetan Plateau: the world’s oldest immobile artwork, 140,000 years older than France’s Chauvet cave paintings.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Johan Gunnar Andersson’s 1921 excavation of the Neolithic Yangshao site, widely recognized as the starting point of Chinese archaeology. That makes the field a relative upstart, especially compared to China’s rich traditions of historiography and epigraphy, but it hasn’t kept archaeology from becoming one of the country’s most important academic fields over the past century.

Much of archaeology’s initial appeal was as a subfield of history. Almost immediately after Andersson’s expedition, Chinese scholars recognized the potential power of archaeology to settle simmering disputes about the country’s prehistory. Western-oriented groups like the “Doubting Antiquity School” emerged around this time to question the existence of dynasties and events long taken for granted; and both sides of the ensuing debates saw archaeology as a valuable “tool” for making their arguments. Continue to read the full article here

– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.