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National Treasure: Under a Village, China Hunts for Lost History

National Treasure: Under a Village, China Hunts for Lost History

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A century after tomb raiders picked Jincun clean, an official survey looks to set the record straight.

Early in spring this year, an archaeological crew of around 60 people gathered in a wheat field in central Henan province. Standing in a line, they drove their shovels into the ground around Jincun Village.

The team had just officially launched China’s most systematic exploration of the royal tombs of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-256 B.C.), which encompassed Luoyang, one of the country’s oldest cities.

For Chinese archaeologists, Jincun holds many regrets. Back in the 1920s, when archaeology was still in its infancy, tomb robbing ran rampant. By the time cultural preservationists arrived at Jincun, it had already been stripped to the bone.

The thousands of looted artifacts eventually ended up overseas. Museums known to possess artifacts from Jincun span Canada, Japan, the U.K., Sweden, and the U.S., among dozens of other institutions across the world.

On the tremendous potential locked away in these relics, one expert noted, “When you understand Jincun, you get to understand the China of that time.”

Past and present

The site at Jincun Village was discovered and illegally excavated nearly a century ago, but systematic archaeological work has never been carried out on the royal tombs, and the condition of the ruins remains largely unexplored.

Dr. Liu Bin now heads the exploration site and works at the Luoyang City Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute. He underscores that most of Jincun’s lost artifacts are rare treasures, which has led to what is known internationally as “the study of Jincun.”

A square mirror inlaid with turquoise, likely from Jincun, held in collection by ROM. Photo provided by the interviewees

According to Dr. Liu, Eastern Zhou artifacts immediately bring Jincun to mind, since the style has become the symbol of that dynasty. “The progress of the archaeological work does not do justice to the value of Jincun’s unearthed artifacts,” he rues.

In college, he learned about the capital cities and tombs of past dynasties, but discussions grew vague about the Eastern Zhou, reflecting the dearth of archaeological work on the subject. Whenever his professors referred to Jincun, he recalls detecting a tone of regret in their voices.

According to official materials compiled by the Luoyang Antique Management Bureau, around the end of summer 1928, Jincun witnessed heavy rains, which caused the ground to cave in about 1.5 kilometers east of the village. This revealed the underground tombs.

Theft and trafficking followed quickly, and “Jincun relics” flooded local markets in Henan.

As tomb robbers picked Jincun clean, Chinese archaeologists were busy 300 kilometers away in Anyang, also in Henan. There began the first trial excavation of the Yinxu ruins — a Shang Dynasty site dating back to the second millennium B.C. It became the most significant discovery in modern Chinese archaeology.

Ignored by the establishment, Jincun soon drew the attention of foreign treasure hunters, particularly a Canadian Christian missionary living in Kaifeng, Henan, named William Charles White, known in China as Huai Lüguang.

White collected Chinese art for the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), including Jincun artifacts. Other accounts, however, claim that he was directly involved in tomb raiding. It remains a contested issue today.

According to Shen Chen, deputy director of ROM, the museum’s archives suggest White had only hurried through Luoyang once, and that there was no definitive evidence of his visit to Jincun.

Throughout his time in China, White donned two hats. He was active in the Church’s efforts to help refugees amid the incessant fighting among Henan’s warlords, for which he received several commendations from the Republic of China government.

Simultaneously, White also sent more than 8,000 Chinese relics to Canada, turning ROM into one of the largest overseas collections of Chinese relics, second only to the British Museum.

Between 1928 and 1932, a total of eight large tombs in Jincun were plundered, costing China thousands of cultural relics. White’s publication of “Tombs of Old Lo-yang” in 1934 catapulted those tombs to global fame.

Complete with sketches, the book documented the layout, structure, and dimensions of the tombs. His work, together with Japanese archaeologist Sueji Umehara’s book “Rakuyo Kinson Kobo Shuei,” (Objects from the Ancient Tombs at Chin Ts'un, Lo-yang) published three years later, provides the most detailed research on Jincun’s cultural relics to date.

Almost a century later, things are finally about to change.

Dr. Liu says the exploration of the site is merely the beginning to make up for lost time and provide detailed, reliable information for continued research, and conservation in the future.

Gordian knot

Late in March, amid the golden wheat fields that stretch across Jincun, the Chinese exploration crew expanded the site to include the nearby woods as well. Their total survey area stretched to nearly 1.5 million square meters — more than the size of about 200 soccer fields.

For many years, however, the proposal to restart archaeological work at Jincun stayed largely on the backburner, partly due to concerns around the rich history buried here: its millennium-long lifespan, with the complexity of the stratigraphy of the various dynasties on top of the Eastern Zhou relics.

A ceramic pot with dragonfly eyes, likely from Jincun, held in collection by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo provided by the interviewees

Experts feared that starting the dig could destroy the remains of other periods in the process of exploring the older, more deeply buried Eastern Zhou.

In 1962, a team under the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences explored Jincun. While their aim was the ruins of the Han and Wei dynasties concealed there, they also uncovered information about the Eastern Zhou dynasty.

“For a long time, field archaeology and cultural relics conservation efforts have not truly focused on the actual tombs, which is a shame for contemporary Chinese archaeology,” says Yan Hui, who heads the Han and Wei ancient city research office at the Luoyang City Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute.

For security reasons, the discoveries made six decades ago are yet to be published. Dr. Liu noted that the work of that time period was nowhere near as meticulous as what can be achieved today.

The purpose of this revisit 60 years on is mainly limited to exploration, not excavation. “We are not interested only in the Eastern Zhou dynasty to the point of neglecting the other periods,” he says. “We have to document every cultural layer. This current phase is for exploration only, and with less risk, which is why it got approved.”

Eventually, the crew plan to select and attempt to excavate one or two key areas — like a chariot burial chamber or a smaller tomb — that could help settle major academic disputes. The project is expected to last five years.

The lost symbol

To date, only three Jincun artifacts within China are universally recognized. The most well-known is a bronze ritual wine vessel from the Han fiefdom of the Eastern Zhou period, now on display at the National Museum of China.

Ching Tsai Loo, a New York-based antiques dealer, recovered the artifact abroad and shipped it back in 1948 as commissioned by famous archaeologist Chen Mengjia when he left the United States.

Xu Jian works for Shanghai University and has studied Jincun’s cultural relics for many years. “Though these three relics are the only ones publicly known, there may be more,” he says.

Internationally, one of the most recognized artifacts is the bronze niuzhong bell, which originally belonged to a set of 14. It documents an important military campaign and is considered the most historically valuable Eastern Zhou bronze work in existence. Two are currently in ROM’s collection, with 12 others held in Japan. 

Of the artifacts from Jincun, bronzeware and jades are perhaps the most important. According to Xu Jian, some of the bronze relics are massive; some are elaborately decorated; and the most unique ones are delicately inlaid with gold and silver. The jades may represent the peak of jade-making techniques in the whole Eastern Zhou era.

But with so many relics looted and trafficked, several may, however, have dubious origins, which makes it hard to determine whether an artifact actually belongs to Jincun.

Moreover, inaccuracies riddle even the information that White and Umehara compiled in the 1930s, relatively close to the time of discovery. Chen Mengjia himself had commented that many of those 380 or so pieces listed in White’s book have contested origins at best.

Since the turn of the century, ROM has begun to survey the Jincun artifacts in its collection but so far, the results are still murky.

The ideal solution might be to excavate new relics from Jincun and establish a comparative standard. But without a systematic plan, Xu says that further exploration could only lead to indirect evidence for helping infer the origins of the artifacts, instead of providing a definitive set of “Jincun standards.”

Capstone

Jincun echoes with the silence of its history. According to current assumptions, the Eastern Zhou dynasty, established in 770 B.C., buried a total of 25 generations of kings (called the “Sons of Heaven”) in three mausoleums near the ancient sites of Wangcheng, Zhoushan, and Jincun — all near Luoyang.

The archaeological site of Jincun in March 2022. Photo by Liu Bin

The sites house 10, 4, and 11 royal tombs, respectively. It is speculated that Chengzhou, the second capital city of the late Eastern Zhou dynasty, and which so far only exists in ancient records, is also likely to be located near Jincun. White had previously recorded only eight tombs in the same area.

In addition, these royal tombs boast another unique feature: it coincides with how the methods of royal burials evolved. Yan Hui noted that the Warring States period (c. 475–221 B.C.) of the Eastern Zhou dynasty marked a time of transition during which tombs moved from a centralized system to the “independent” system of the Qin and Han dynasties.

Tomb after tomb belonging to the feudal lords was unearthed, but not one burial chamber of the Zhou kings has ever been found in its entirety, which even today is considered the ultimate find in archaeology.

But as archaeologists slowly explore Jincun, and the secrets it holds, they may finally unearth stories from one of the oldest civilizations in China.

Reporter: Ni Wei.

This article was originally published by China Newsweek. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.

(Header image: Left: A bronze figural lamp stand, likely from Jincun, held in collection by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; middle: A ritual disc with dragon motifs, likely from Jincun, at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; right: A vessel inlaid with silver and gold, likely from Jincun, at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Photo provided by the interviewees)


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