1993 / 7月
JacKie Chen /photos courtesy of Vincent Chang /tr. by Phil Newell
What happens to a placid rural setting when a gaggle of archaeologists and their students take up residence? The roads get repaired and buildings go up, and there is some damage to the crops. And how is it all those porcelain items that had been used as rabbit feeders, flower pots, and oil cans have been taken away?
Under a blazing sun, "Old Dong," a resident of Dinggong Village, is shoveling at the former site of a structure. Though he is capped with a straw hat, pearls of sweat still bead on his forehead.
"What's the difference between planting crops and digging at an archaeological site?" inquires an unthinking visitor. Old Dong is startled for a second, then looks disgusted at the foolishness of the query. He slowly replies, "No difference." He ponders for half a beat, then adds: "You have to be a little more careful digging up old sites."
Like the other farmers at the scene, Old Dong is also a "civilian worker" employed by the Shandong University archaeological team in Dinggong. Each receives a daily wage of RMB 2.50, "which really pays compared to planting crops." Old Dong concludes: "Farming here isn't worth the money, because you get only RMB 0.40 for a pound of wheat and RMB 0.35 for a pound of corn."Teachers who dig up babies:
The main force of the Shandong archaeological team is group after group of students, who change year by year. Each of them comes equipped only with a theoretical foundation, but without any practical experience. At this time, it's up to the "civilian workers," who are at the site day in and day out, year in and year out, to guide and instruct them.
Of course the archaeological knowledge of the civilian workers was taught to them by an academic. Instructor Fang Hui says, not without a touch of pride, "The civilian workers can dig without breaking the items at the site, and they can even judge geology."
Not far away, Old Dong is introducing the relationship of the layers of soil to a visitor--which ones are layers of ancient culture, which are yam pits dug in the 1950s, and which are modern rows cut for planting.
The civilian workers and the archaeological team members labor side by side; the former call the latter "teacher," regardless of whether they be instructors or students. Privately the local people know that the "teachers" do not come here just to tear up the ground because they have nothing better to do. "They are digging up precious things," says one civilian worker, as if revealing a secret.
"Do you know that precious objects have been found here?" asks the visitor. "We know, but it's secret." The respondent is still Old Dong, and it seems he is the only one willing to field questions. "It would be a bad idea to tell people who really don't understand."
What would be bad about it? Are they afraid of cultural bandits? Or thieves who might come to the site to dig? It has been said that when the students came to the village to do a survey of cultural artifacts, the villagers whispered amongst themselves that "the antique buyers are back again." The students also discovered that the villagers were not willing to turn over some ancient artifacts. Could it be that the artifact dealers had already been through here?Long-suffering peasants:
The relations between the dig team and the local farmers are close indeed. Besides always being with the civilians who work with them, team members go to the village to procure the daily necessities--drawing water, buying needles and thread or snacks, and buying rice and vegetables. The chef who makes meals at the work station is also from the area.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the archaeological team has brought Yuancheng district, and especially the sleepy village of Dinggong, to life. But, correspondingly, the farmers have had to give up a great deal.
In order to preserve the recovered artifacts and make life easier for the students, in 1989 the community provided 10 mu of land and invested RMB 300,000 to build a three story building for the team. The students live and eat there, and cleaning of artifacts is also done there; the villagers call it Archaeology Hall.
Dinggong Village is about two kilometers from Yuancheng proper. In the past, each time it rained or snowed the road would turn into a quagmire. When the leaders of the township saw the students trudging back and forth, they invested RMB 100,000 to build an asphalt road running out to the hamlet. This was the first ever such transit way for the village, and the locals call it "Archaeology Road."
It's not really known how the local cadres came up with the funds for the road and building. Leaders in the township say these things show the compassion farmers feel for the hard labors of the students and also a realization of the importance of preserving cultural artifacts.
"Constructing the archaeology building and fixing up the road were more important than set ting up rural enterprises," echo the leaders at the county level. But how much of this huge sum was taken from the farmers themselves? Township leaders all say that the farmers have been happy to donate money and have done so without complaint. The visitor, meanwhile, is thinking about peasants who have always suffered everything in silence.Who takes responsibility for damaged crops?
And the "contribution" of the local people does not stop there.
Before the archaeological site was discovered in Dinggong, there were thirty households with two hundred rooms right on top of it. After the discovery, the cadres in the village no longer allowed peasants to build new homes on the site. The existing homes are being moved out one after the other; more than ten homes with twenty-plus rooms have been relocated as of today. There are no private homes to be seen where the digging is actually going on.
New homes are not permitted, but it is OK to plant crops where no digging has yet taken place. Yet here as well there is an additional proviso: On the basis of the "Cultural Artifacts Law," the cadres in the village do not permit farmers to drill wells, dig irrigation ditches, or plow deeply; otherwise they will be fined.
The teachers say that "the state" has compensated for economic from confiscation of the land: RMB 1000 for a mu of vegetable land, RMB 400-500 for a mu of grain land, decided according to the market prices at the moment. Of course this scale of compensation amounts to a net loss for the farmers. Therefore, the team always invites the owner of any land that is touched by the site to come and work with them for a living.
The excavation in Dinggong Village has in fact already seriously affected crop growth. Instructor Fang Hui says that in 300 mu of land, more than 100,000 exploratory holes have been drilled. "The land has been turned into a honeycomb," he describes. When this point is raised, the ordinarily affable Fang gets serious and looks shamefaced.
Fang says that all he can do is to get on with the digging as quickly as possible, and after understanding the situation of the site, hurriedly replace the soil and allow the farmers to plant crops. "At most we will only make them miss one growing season," he says. It's just that after the land has been dug up, even if it is replaced, the planting layer has already been covered with virgin soil, so that it can never return to its former quality. "When you compare the appearance of the crops planted before and after excavation, there's no similarity," notes Fang Hui.A Shang dynasty porcelain bowl for feeding rabbits:
The students and teachers are all apologetic when discussing the interruption of crop planting. But there is another matter where the local culture and the archaeological mind come into an even more interesting "dialectical materialist" relationship.
When doing their survey of cultural artifacts, the students went everywhere throughout the village, and often discovered that precious artifacts were not being properly treasured. An exquisitely carved jar from the Western Chou dynasty was used as a place to store eggs. A plate from the Western Chou being used as a flowerpot had a hole cut in the bottom to let the water run out. And a late Shang era basin had an indentation dug in it for use in feeding rabbits. Another object used as an oil can still had grease stains on the bottom.
These objects have all been recovered, and are preserved in the work station. The students laugh and say that you can't blame the farmers because they had no idea of the value of these items. This is a classic case of "ancient things put to modern use."
Of course the students and teachers in the archaeological team hope the farmers will further understand and treasure the artifacts. Just as Old Dong explains the relationship of different geologic levels, perhaps one day the meaning of these pots and jars will be known to all. Or at least, perhaps their function will not be limited to feeding rabbits.
This is the young woman who found the inscribed potsherd during washing. The man at her side is her father "Old Dong."
(right) Villagers often drop in to visit the mysterious looking site.
Is there a cultural layer under the sponge gourd fields?
This Western Chou caldron was used to plant flowers. Its special features include decorative lines cut all the way to the bottom and curls.
Using a late-Shang or Western Chou jar to hold eggs seems like an OK idea, but the loss would be rather costly if it got broken.
Accompanying the visitor to the site are a history professor, the county chief, rural township leaders, and officials from the Taiwan affairs office, filling up two sedans.
A potsherd with character inscriptions was found in this ditch dug two years ago.