On Feb 26 last year, just a few weeks after the traditional Spring Festival holiday, a team of more than 2,000 archaeologists from across China gathered in Beijing.
The municipal government had invited the experts to conduct an archaeological survey of Tongzhou district, which had been chosen as the capital's new administrative center. The government was anxious to preserve archaeological treasures buried under the soil before construction teams moved in to erect new government buildings in preparation for the change.
By the end of the excavation, seven months later, more than 10,000 cultural relics had been unearthed that traced the history of Tongzhou back to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).
Workmen clear the ground in preparation for an excavation in Hugezhuang village, Tongzhou, Beijing. [Photo/China Daily]
"We found a huge number of tombs, an ancient city from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and many other relics that prove Tongzhou, 25 km east of downtown Beijing, had a large population at least 2,000 years ago," said Yu Ping, deputy head of the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, which oversaw the excavation.
The different types of tombs unearthed provided invaluable research materials about Beijing's role from the late Warring States Period to the Han Dynasty, he added.
According to the administration, the team surveyed 1.013 million square meters－equal to 142 soccer pitches－and unearthed relics from an area covering 40,000 square meters.
"It was the first time in the city's history that such a large team, drawn from nine provinces, had been called together to work on an archaeological project in an urban district," Yu said. "The findings were significant, too."
An adult urn burial site from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) discovered in Hugezhuang. [Photo/China Daily]
More than 1,000 tombs were unearthed, spanning the period from the Han Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Liu Qingzhu, academic director at the Institute of Archaeology, a think tank with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the tombs dated from the Han, Liao (916-1125), Jin (1115-1234), Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. Excavation and analysis of the burial sites will help archaeologists to learn more about how people from different regions and eras integrated into the existing culture.
"Different dynasties were established by people from different regions. The process by which they integrated can be determined by examining their daily lives, which we can research through their tombs," Liu said.
"The tombs are precious treasures, but they are also more than that. As a nation, we don't lack gold, but we do lack a common spirit. The 1,000-plus tombs reflect how Chinese culture developed during different periods, which can sometimes help us to understand and solve modern problems."
About 80 percent of the tombs date from the Han Dynasty, with 163 from the Western Han (206 BC-AD 24) and 696 from the Eastern Han (25-220).
The archaeologists also discovered 62 tombs in Tongzhou's Hugezhuang village that ranged from the late Warring States Period to the Western Han Dynasty. All of them contained burial urns.
A pottery burial urn from the Warring States period. [Photo/China Daily]
Guo Jingning, deputy head of the Beijing Cultural Relics Research Institute, said it's extremely rare to discover such a large number of relics in one place.
"In addition to the number of urn-burial tombs, they are also of different types. We discovered six or seven different decorative patterns on them, which is very unusual," he said.
The urns were mainly used for the burial of children, but also sporadically for adults, and were favored because they prevented wild animals from desecrating the bodies. In addition, some researchers believe the shape of the urns is reminiscent of a womb, which was regarded as accelerating the rebirth of the dead.
The archaeological team also discovered 26 counting rods－tools made from bone that were used to perform calculations－in Tongzhou's Houbeiying village. Counting rods have also been discovered in other parts of China and are considered to have been important tools during the Western Han Dynasty.
Feng Lisheng, a professor who specializes in ancient texts at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said it was the first time that such a large number of counting rods had been discovered in Beijing, and noted that most of them were intact and well-preserved.
"The city was for people to live in while they were alive and the tombs were used for burying people when they died. Those factors form a full picture of society that will allow us to research the use of space and structures and the human habits prevalent at the time," said Liu, director of the Institute of Archeology.
The archaeologists also unearthed the complete remains of the ancient city of Lucheng, founded during the Han Dynasty. The discovery included a road dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, and the remains of a moat from the Liao and Jin dynasties that was 30 to 50 meters wide.
The north wall of the ancient city was 606 meters long, while the south wall was about 575 meters. The east wall was 589 meters and the west wall was 555 meters, according to Liu. Together they formed a rough rectangle covering an area of 350,000 square meters.
Liu said the discovery of Lucheng indicates that Beijing was North China's political, military and transportation center two millennia ago: "However, the history of Tongzhou is even longer than the capital's. These findings have greatly enriched our research materials about the 2,000-year history of Beijing."
High priority work
By putting archaeology ahead of infrastructure construction, Beijing has set an example to other parts of the country, a move in accordance with the Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics, according to Liu.
Despite that, the project has not been without its difficulties. "It's hard to keep archaeological excavations on schedule to match the construction work that will follow, because you don't know what you will find. It largely depends on the specific circumstances underground," he said.
"On this point, the municipal government was very tolerant about the working period for the project. It didn't draw up a strict timetable for the team, even though it is required to complete the infrastructure construction of the new buildings in Tongzhou by the end of October."
During the work, the team even used equipment to detect old plant seeds, which is rare in such a large project, Liu added.
"I was interested by how the team coordinated its work in a very scientific and smooth way," he said.
From 2000 to 2015, Beijing invested 140 million yuan ($20 million) in the restoration and protection of cultural relics, the authorities said.
At present, 236 unmovable cultural relics in Tongzhou are under State-level protection, and there are plans to build cultural parks, museums and exhibition halls based on them.