A new life
Excavation of ancient tomb points to future of relics treatment
At the foot of Wan’an Hill, there is a large ancient tomb with heavy security and a huge protective shield temporarily built over it. The site is in Luoyang, a city in Henan province, which was the capital of 13 empires or kingdoms over two millennia of Chinese history.
It is thus commonplace for locals to see excavations for cultural relics going on at construction sites.
Nevertheless, for Shi Jiazhen, director of the Luoyang City Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, the excavation of a tomb in Xizhu village, on the southeastern outskirts of Luoyang, is one of the biggest finds in recent years.
The site was discovered by villagers who were moving their family graveyards in July 2015.
“No coffin was found and many frescoes and bricks have been destroyed by tomb robbers,” says Shi.
“But that doesn’t lessen the significance of the find: It’s the tomb of a high-ranking person from Cao Wei, probably of an empress, according to our studies of its shape and its seven-layered structure.”
Cao Wei (220-265) was one of three states in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), which was founded by Cao Pi on a foundation left by his father Cao Cao, a powerful warlord at the end of Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).
Based on studies of the site and combined with historical records, archaeologists believe that the tomb is of the empress of Cao Rui, the second emperor of Cao Wei.
Although the tomb has been vandalized many times, from the Song (960-1279) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) period, about 400 cultural relics have been unearthed so far, including jade, pottery and stone inventories of funeral objects.
One of the finds is an amber figurine of a woman riding a sheep. It would have been state-of-the-art at that time and is a national treasure, says Shi.
“The tomb is built in a simple style, which inherits characteristics of the Eastern Han Dynasty,” says Shi. “However, its extraordinarily large scale gives it a royal aura.”
For instance, the burial chamber is 12 meters deep, 18 meters long and 13.5 meters wide, and has a 36-meter-long tomb passage, according to Wang Xianqiu, the archaeologist in charge of the site.
“We’ve also surveyed about a 1 million square meters area around the tomb, and found an even bigger tomb 400 meters away,” says Wang.
“It could be Cao Rui’s tomb, but we have decided not to touch it.”
A common practice among today’s Chinese archaeologists is not to rush to excavate emperors’ mausoleums, even though their locations are confirmed.
For four years in a row, projects undertaken by Shi’s institute have been included in “Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries in China”, an annual survey of top experts, which is organized by the China Cultural Relics News.
“I’m confident that the discovery of this Cao Wei tomb will be on that list,” says Shi.
“But, compared with gaining honors, it’s more important to let citizens participate in archaeological excavations and learn the history of their hometown,” he adds.
‘An archaeological theme park’
Meanwhile, Shi hopes to turn the nearly 7 hectare area around the site into a tourist destination for visitors to see archaeological work in spite of the fact that the area is earmarked to be part of a wildlife park.
The proposal was recently approved by the local government, but the details are still to be worked out.
“How unique and interesting the zoo will be if we build a small archaeology theme park in it,” says Shi.
According to his plan, visitors will be able to see archeologists work in a laboratory at the site besides visiting a museum, which displays artifacts unearthed from the tomb.
“We’ve taken a lot of effort promoting cultural relics in Luoyang,” he says. “However, nothing will be more effective than if we can allow the public to see the treasures and make them a part of their daily lives.”
Coordination with urban construction
The project in Xizhu is only the start of Shi’s plans to blend archaeology with urban construction in the city.
He, however, regrets that cultural relics have became “a burden” on the development of the city.
“There is a common practice: If an important archaeological site is found, construction is forbidden within 100 meters to protect the site,” he explains.
“And, many sites are backfilled with earth after studies are finished. “That is a waste if they (the sites) are used only by academia and not known for the public,” he says.
But some changes have occurred recently.
For instance, on the campus of the No 6 High School of Luoyang, a section of the city wall of the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907) was found when a building was being renovated last year.
“It is a part of imperial palace, and it’s as thick as 15 meters,” Zhang Longdan, who leads archaeological work at the site, says.
“The walls offer a crucial reference for us to study layouts of ancient capital cities and contain much information on the political, military and economic systems of the time.”
Nevertheless, the archaeological team chose not to interfere with the renovation of the building but worked with the school to modify the construction blueprints.
“I was worried that the construction would be stopped when the ruins were found,” says Shi Linxu, the principal of the high school
“But we finally worked out a plan to cover the site with glass and turn it into a miniature museum. This will also be a highlight of our school.”
The attraction will be open not only to students but also to visitors from outside.
Similar ideas are also being considered by other institutions in Luoyang, and Shi Jiazhen says there are at least five such projects involving schools, a market, and even a military facility.
“You can imagine what will happen if we continue this effort for a decade or more,” he says. “These cultural sites in every community will comprise an incomparable landscape not only in China, but the whole world.”
But, he confesses that it still takes a relatively long time to get approvals for each project due to the regulations of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage on archaeological sites.
“But as more projects are approved things will get easier,” he says with a touch of optimism.
Compared with gaining honors, it’s more important to let citizens participate in archaeological excavations and learn the history of their hometown.” Wang Xianqiu, archaeologist
About 400 pieces of cultural relics have been unearthed so far during the excavation of the Cao Wei tomb in Xizhu village in Luoyang.