Chinese archaeologists started a joint excavation at the Kimengich Site in western Kenya into the origin of modern humans with the National Museum of Kenya around October 1, the Xinhua News Agency reported. This marks yet another major international archaeological excavation that China has taken part in after Copán, a Mayan archaeological site in western Honduras.
Aside from capturing the attention of foreign media such as USA Today, which published an article in 2016 titled China Strives to Become Leader in World of Archaeology, China's archaeological efforts and international cooperation over the past five years have been considered major achievements in relic preservation, according to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) in an article Cultural Relics Work and Achievements since the 18th CPC National Congress.
Two excavators work to unearth a city wall at the Mingtepa site in Uzbekistan. Photo: Courtesy of the CASS Institute of Archaeology Central Asian Archaeological Team
Unlike decades ago when the leading forces in most of the major archaeological discoveries worldwide were Western experts from countries such as the US and the UK, over the past few years an increasing number of archaeological teams from China have been participating in joint excavation projects overseas, especially in key areas where some of the world's most ancient civilizations were born.
Apart from the Kimengich and Copán projects, Chinese teams have also worked at the Precinct of Montu, a part of the ruins of the Karnak temple complex in southern Egypt, and key sites at Sarnath in northeast India, the place where the Buddha is said to have given his first sermon.
Many of these projects kicked off within the last five years, such as the Mintepa project, a Chinese-Uzbekistan archaeological project that began in 2012, and the Sarnath and the Precinct of Montu projects in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
This trend is the result of China's increasing economic strength and the country's archeological circle's growing interest in conducting exchanges with their foreign counterparts, according to Zhu Yanshi, director of the Department of Han to Tang Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Institute of Archaeology and the Mintepa project's Chinese team leader, in an interview with the Global Times in April.
Unlike today, Chinese voices went unheard in the world of archaeology for a long time. It was not until the 1980s when modern Chinese archaeologists began regular exchanges with their foreign colleagues that some of them were invited to participate in international projects initiated by foreign archaeological institutions.
Later, as exchanges continued in the 1990s, China's cultural heritage watchdog SACH started to allow Western archaeological teams, majorly from the US and Japan, into the mainland as part of joint excavations and research projects at some of the world's best known sites such as the Yin Ruins in Shangqiu, Central China's Henan Province, and the Niya Site in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
After continued government and academic investment, Chinese archaeological technologies and talents continued to mature. Finally, a major breakthrough occurred in 2005 when the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute took part in China's first country-to-country joint excavation overseas.
The joint excavation took place at the Phùng Nguyên site in Vietnam, where a number of jade vessels had been unearthed that "were believed by Vietnamese scholars to possibly be related to Sichuan Province's Sanxingdui Site." Due to this possible connection, the Vietnamese institution overseeing the site invited the Sichuan institute to send a team to work side by side with Vietnamese experts.
Later that year, a joint archaeological project between the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and a number of Mongolian archaeological institutions was launched to investigate over a hundred of archaeological sites in Mongolia.
While most overseas projects after that point were joint ventures between local archaeological institutions, the 2012 joint excavation project at Uzbekistan's Mintepa site between the CASS Institute of Archaeology and the Archaeology Institute under the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan marked the first time that one of these joint excavations involved two national-level archaeological institutions working together.
Tourists visit the Mayan archaeological site of Copan, 400 kilometers from Tegucigalpa in western Honduras, near the border with Guatemala, on December 7, 2015. Photo: VCG
Getting to know the world
One of the prominent characteristics of China's overseas joint excavation projects have been that most of them involved neighboring countries such as Russia, Vietnam, Mongolia and Cambodia. This has mainly been due to the close historical ties between it and its neighbors.
However, more recent overseas excavation projects seem to be focusing more on ancient civilizations that have no direct historical connections with China, such as the projects launched at the Mayan site and in India and Egypt.
"The motivation behind the internationalization of China's archaeological efforts involves China's desire to learn more about civilizations beyond its own," Song Xinchao, deputy head of the SACH, told the Guangming Daily in 2016.
Chinese archaeological techniques and talents have become valuable assets in theses overseas projects.
For instance, Li Zhanyang, the Chinese team leader of the Kimengich project, published a report in Science magazine in March concerning 100,000-year-old human cranial fossils found in Xuchang, Central China's Henan Province. His findings are said to "challenge the view of humankind's African origins," Xinhua reported in March.
At the Mintepa excavation, more modern means such as 3D modeling, laser mapping and cloud computing technology used by the Chinese team was soon embraced by their Uzbekistan counterparts, Zhu told the Global Times.