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The great walk into China's past

Chinese and U.S. researchers traverse an eastern section of the country to discover clues to its early development.

June 01, 2008|William Mullen | Chicago Tribune

During the time of the Zhou Dynasty 3,000 years ago, when China was still a small nation-state in the middle of a continent, its kings kept sending imperial armies to invade and conquer lands hundreds of miles to the east.

Time and again, however, the people of the east, in what is modern China's Shandong province, managed to defeat the imperial soldiers.

In campaign reports from the time, the sorehead losers wrote that the eastern people were "Dong Yi," meaning stubborn, uncouth barbarians of the east.

Who the eastern people actually were largely had been lost in the fog of history -- until a small crew of scientists from China and Chicago's Field Museum went to Shandong and began to walk systematically across a place where the eastern people had lived.

Unlike more familiar archaeology projects in which a single site is excavated, the scientists are using a field research method called a "regional settlement pattern survey," in which researchers tramp methodically across hundreds or even more than 1,000 square miles.

Spaced 50 yards apart, they walk abreast, scanning the ground for artifacts such as pottery shards and bits of ancient tools. Each discovery is identified and evaluated for its age, and the exact location is noted on a map.

What scientists have found in the last 13 years in Shandong is helping to reshape ideas about the first flowering of Chinese civilization, one of the world's earliest. It also shows that the so-called Dong Yi people were not barbarians at all. They lived in complex city-state societies, ruling surrounding villages that produced food and trade goods and supplied soldiers and labor to build the leaders' walled, moated cities.

"We found thousands of settlements, despite little mention of the area in historical texts," the U.S. and Chinese scientists report in a coming issue of the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, with an article already available online at ScienceDirect.

Scientists using the survey technique, which American archaeologists developed after World War II, know they have found a sizable ancient settlement when they find many artifacts in a small area.

The objects' age and style date the settlement and identify the culture that produced them.

Variations in the artifacts allow archaeologists to describe a settlement's first inhabitants and track the arrivals of new ethnic groups. They also can trace arrivals of new technologies, such as metal smelting or writing, and follow the fortunes of the communities.

In Shandong, found objects range from the Stone Age 7,000 years ago to 2,000 years ago, when the eastern people lost their autonomy and were assimilated by the Han Dynasty. They are not exactly museum-quality treasures -- most are fragments of ceramic, stone, bone, bronze and iron vessels and other items -- but they are highly prized by archaeologists.

"The key issue we want to know is the settlement patterns in ancient times," said Fang Hui, archaeology professor at Shandong University and the survey's chief Chinese scientist.

He visited Chicago recently to confer with his Field Museum colleagues.

"This survey method . . . gives us much more data to interpret than if we just concentrate on excavating one big settlement in isolation of the rest of the region.

"As it all comes together, you see how people in the region in ancient times related to each other and the exposure they had to ideas and people outside the region."

Because U.S. archaeologists were forbidden to work in China after the 1949 communist revolution, the survey technique was not used there until China invited a few Americans to do fieldwork again in the 1990s.

Among them were Anne Underhill, a specialist in complex ancient Chinese societies who is now chairwoman of the Field's anthropology department, and Field anthropologists Gary Feinman and Linda Nicholas, who have done similar surveys in Mexico for decades.

The Chinese wanted them to teach their archaeologists the technique while surveying a little-studied area in southeast Shandong that extends eight to 10 miles inland from the coast of the Yellow Sea around the modern port city of Rizhao.

The team does its work once a year for a few weeks in late autumn and early winter, when the bare ground makes it easier to spot objects, Underhill said.

The Rizhao project has two more years to go, but its maps already tell a history of the region no one knew before.

The two earliest settlements discovered are small Stone Age enclaves put up by settlers who moved into the region when it was mostly uninhabitable marsh because of high ocean levels.

As the ocean dropped and the area dried, more socially organized agricultural people arrived, developing land and building larger villages under clan and tribal authority 5,000 years ago.

More than a thousand years before the Zhou Dynasty armies tried but failed to conquer the people of the east, the Rizhao area was ruled for centuries by two inland walled cities with perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 people each.

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