In recent years, Chinese archaeological teams have been working far afield uncovering the secrets of the past. Yang Jianxiang and Qu Ting report.
On a sunny, humid morning in an open area of tropical forest in Honduras, a group of 16 locals and two Chinese men are on an archaeological dig. Suddenly a snake slithers into view. Frightened and yelling, the locals use spades, sticks and anything they have at hand to scare the snake away.
In the Copan archaeological excavation, Honduras archaeologist Jorge Ramos (left) and Li Xinwei analyze an ancient structure. [Photo courtesy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences]
To Li Xinwei, an archaeologist from Beijing, the red-skinned snake was similar to the red-banded snakes he had seen in the 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, he was told.
That was in November 2015. Li and his colleague were on an excavation resulting from an agreement signed with the Honduras government more than a year before. The Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Honduras Institute of Anthropology and History were cooperating on a five-year project. The Anthropology Department of Harvard University also had a part.
The role of the Chinese archaeologists was 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 death and rebirth cycle of the maize god, according to ancient Mayan beliefs.
At the 8N-11 site of Mayan elite residential compound, Chinese archaeologists unearthed a stone carving of serpent-headed supernatural birds. [Photo courtesy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences]
At the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology held in Vancouver, Canada, this year, Li Xinwei, director of the IACASS Honduras team, shared their 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-American archaeologist Kwang-chih Chang, who believed that American and Chinese civilizations probably shared pan-Pacific cultural genes and were different developments from the same source civilization.
"We cannot understand the special characteristics of our own civilization without understanding the characteristics of other civilizations," Li says.
In recent years, China has sent archaeological teams to central, west and Southeast Asia, and to Kenya in Africa. But Copan is the first of the Chinese archaeologists' major foreign explorations. The Temple of Montu in Luxor, Egypt, and the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi in Haryana, India, are prospective destinations.
Chinese archaeologists Li Bingnan (left) and Yuan Yujie discuss the architectural structure of Thatbyinnyu Temple in Myanmar. [Photo courtesy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences]
In March, the CASS Research Center of World Archaeology was inaugurated under director Wang Wei.
And a category of new archaeological awards was set up in 2016 to recognize Chinese archaeologists' remarkable achievements in foreign excavations. Last year the top award went to the Mingtepa project, a joint operation between IACASS and counterparts in central Asia's Uzbekistan.
The foreign excavations coincide with the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by China in 2013, which envisions 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 says.
Wang led the first team to Copan in July 2014, accompanied by William Fash, a Harvard University archaeologist who started excavating in Honduras in the late 1970s. Although China came to the party fairly late, Fash says he had great confidence in Chinese archaeologists' abilities and strongly believed they would contribute to the study of Mayan civilization.
Aerial view of Copan excavation site of the elite residential compound. [Photo courtesy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences]
In the Mingtepa project, Chinese archaeologists employed a unique China-made tool known as a "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 3-D modeling in their work, which proved more efficient and accurate than established local practices in recording the location, topology and properties of features and items within the excavation grid.
The Mayans often built over existing sites, a testament to their belief in the life-cycle theory. For the excavation of 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 archaeologists are achieving notable results in other countries. A Kenyan project undertaken by a team with Peking University's School of Archaeology 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 says in a recent interview.
At Copan, Li made the 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 archaeologists have committed to the Maya study for more than a hundred years now. We can do the same," he says. "The serene pyramids scattered in the tropical forest are beckoning."（Yang Jianxiang Qu Ting）