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Digging up the past
( 2004-01-09 10:13) (China Daily)

Chinese archaeologists have reported a number of new finds in recent excavations, while relic researchers are looking for new technologies and calling for more work to be done to preserve ancient architectural structures.

When archaeologists were repairing clay statues of Buddha in an ancient temple in Northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, they were surprised to find a number of Buddhist scriptures in various languages inside the statues.

About 120 kilometres to the southwest of Yinchuan, the capital of the region, the Shikong Grand Buddha Temple in Zhongning County, which was built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), has already yielded more than 100 cultural relics including colourful statues and murals, discovered in the temple in the 1980s.

Late last month, after the county's cultural relics bureau had invited local clay figurine artist Yang Qihe to repair 81 statues in the temple, they found scriptures tucked inside 23 of the statues.

Printed or hand-written, in black or red ink, the scriptures include Han Chinese characters and the languages of at least three ethnic minorities.

The paper the scriptures are inscribed on is fragile, and experts are looking for ways to study the content without damaging the scriptures.

Red silk flowers, silver Buddhist sacrificial items and bronze mirrors were also found in the temple.

Dong Quanren, director of the Zhongning County Cultural Relics Bureau, said that the scriptures, bound with wooden spines, must have been put inside the statues when they were first shaped.

New oracle bones

In Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, where major dynasties in China's distant past thrived and built their capitals, archaeologists reported late last month that they discovered two new oracle bones, or dragon bones, as they are popularly known.

One of them is inscribed with the greatest number of this earliest known form of Chinese characters ever found on a single bone.

The two sections of tortoise shell were unearthed by archaeologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Peking University and Shaanxi Province, who were working together on new excavations near a temple in Qishan County, in northeastern Shaanxi.

One piece has 38 characters, six more than the previous record, and the other has 17. They are believed to date from the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC).

This is the first time Chinese archaeologists have found inscriptions on tortoise back shells, rather than ventral shells. Obvious saw cuts can also be seen on the shells, the first time such a find has been made.

Experts have begun deciphering the inscriptions.

They believe the research on the newly found oracle bones may throw light on the culture of the Zhou Dynasty.

Other relics were also found nearby.

Oracle bones, or inscribed animal bones and tortoise shells, were first used for divination by kings of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC).

Chinese archaeologists have found more than 160,000 inscribed bones with 10,000 characters, about 1,000 of which have been deciphered.

The first oracle bone inscriptions were discovered more than 100 years ago in the Yinxu Ruins in Anyang, in Central China's Henan Province. They were pictographs similar to the cuneiform writing of the ancient Near East and the hieroglyphic writing of ancient Egypt.

Such inscriptions are among the oldest forms of writing in the world. Their descendants, the Chinese characters (Han Zi), are still in use by the Chinese.

Conch fossil

While researchers in Shaanxi expect to learn more about the Zhou Dynasty from these two oracle bones, their colleagues in Southwest China's Guizhou Province are coming up with quite different finds in the mountainous area populated by the Tujia people.

Recently, local archaeologists there unearthed a conch fossil dating back over 100 million years.

Though totally fossilized, the 40-centimetre long conch is still intact. Through a white surface, researchers can see clearly the texture of the ancient shell, said Liu Enyuan of the Guizhou Provincial Archaeology Institute.

Liu said the conch was found in a place called Liaojiazui, in Yanhe Tujia Autonomous County, on the banks of the Wujiang River, a branch of the Yangtze.

Fossilized seashells and fish have been found here in large numbers.

"But this is the oldest and best preserved fossil we have ever found,'' he said.

Experts believe Guizhou Province was inundated in prehistoric times and geological changes over the years left the region as it is today.

"The discovery of conch fossils and other evidence of ancient aquatic life in the region has provided important clues to geological changes along the Wujiang River,'' said Liu.

Old marriage law

Besides the conch fossil, local Guizhou anthropologists were delighted to uncover two stone tablets dating back more than 200 years.

The inscriptions found on the two tablets tell what to do and what not to do in a marriage.

The tablets, inscribed during the reigns of Qianlong (1736-1795) and Jiaqing (1796-1820), two emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), outlawed marriage between close relations, elopement, blackmail or unilateral breach of engagement, and granted widows the right to remarry.

"They offer a systematic set of marriage laws,'' said Wang Zongxun, head of the Archives of Jinping County, where the tablets are kept. "It was quite rare for ethnic people in underdeveloped region to make laws like this 200 years ago.''

The county where the tablets were found is a traditional logging area densely populated by the Miao ethnic group along the Qingshuijiang River.

Wang assumed it was the booming timber trade that brought the cultural concepts and value systems of the Han people to the ethnic Miao people.

But who could have enforced these marriage laws"

The first thing that comes to mind would be the ancient county magistrate.

The magistrates lived and held public hearings in the yamen, or magistrate's office " the ancient town hall.

The best preserved and the oldest yamen is in Henan Province, and it has been opened to the public as a museum, the first of its kind in China.

Henan was once a centre of politics and culture in ancient China.

Located in the old city of Xinmi, which is about 50 kilometres to the southwest of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, the 1,400-year-old yamen was originally built in the Sui Dynasty (581-618), was destroyed in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Covering an area of 20 mu (13,000 square metres), the yamen museum boasts over 1,000 historical relics, including its bell and drum towers, entrance screens walls, gate structures, halls and prisons, all effectively placed and well preserved.

"It is regarded as a living fossil for research on the history and culture of the Ming and Qing dynasties,'' said Xu Shunzhan, a local archaeologist.

A special team was organized last year and a large sum of money has been spent on preserving and restoring the historical site.

As a result, some buildings that were partly destroyed have been restored, historical materials about famous local people and magistrates collected and exhibitions portraying ancient punishments and instruments of torture have been held.

Great Wall bricks

While historians in Xinmi are taking care of the old yamen complex, Great Wall scholars are calling public attention to the inscriptions on bricks on the imperial Ming Dynasty section of the Great Wall in neighbouring Hebei Province in North China.

The inscriptions are fading owing to centuries of wind and rain erosion and the environment deterioration of recent years, according to Hao Sanjin, a member of the Great Wall Society of China.

The inscribed bricks are mainly found in the section of the Great Wall in North China's Hebei Province.

The existing bricks span several reign periods of Ming emperors, noted Hao, while a few date from the period of the Northern Qi State (550-577), the earliest discovered so far.

"It is generally recognized that the inscribed bricks provide valuable historical clues for the study of the construction of the Great Wall and the military history of the border area at that time,'' said Hao.

Characters have obscured on dilapidated bricks on the section of the wall at the Shanhaiguan Pass, the last section of the wall built in the Ming Dynasty.

According to the Shanhaiguan Pass Cultural Relics Preservation Office, in the 1980s those characters were still distinct and easily decipherable.

Archaeologists are calling for a survey of the surviving inscribed bricks as soon as possible.

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