Sunday, August 30, 2009

Getting That Neolithic Feeling

Like many others, I have been fascinated by Chinese archaeology since childhood- oracle bones, bronzes, silk banners, jade burial suits, terracotta soldiers.  My first exposure to this world was the ground-breaking "Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China", which I saw in 1974 in San Francisco with my family.  My mother likes to remind me how my father and brother went through the exhibition in under an hour, while she stayed behind with me, transfixed for hours by the fantastic items (I was 8 years old).  

35 years later, this April, I was able to  visit Xi'an (ancient Chang'an), together with Perry, my mother Joy, and my sister Kathy.  In preparing for the trip, I used the excellent guide entitled China: Museums (M. Clifford, C. Giangrande, and A. White, Scala, 2009) - and I was pleasantly surprised to find that, aside from the famous "terracotta army" of  Emperor Qin Shihuangdi's tomb complex, there were several other major archaeological sites worth visiting.  I think it's worth mentioning these, not only in case others try to make the trip to Xi'an, but because the Chinese deserve credit for some very innovative ways of displaying and preserving ancient places.

Our first stop was Banpo Neolithic Village, the most famous site of the Yangshao Culture (ca.  5000-4000 BCE).  Now enclosed entirely within a roofed museum, the man-made moat surrounding the village is visible (above), as are the many circular pit houses with the impressions of the wood posts that once supported their ceilings.  Kilns, ritual areas, and tombs of various sizes were excavated during the main period of research (the 1950s), and I was quite excited to see such a large and well-preserved site of this early date.  A fascinating (and quite chilling) element was the skeleton of a man interred entirely face-down, one of the only examples of such a burial position I can think of worldwide.  I couldn't help but imagine that this was someone who broke cultural norms, and was not granted the right to a proper burial (talk about losing face!).  A curious aspect of the antiquated display were the modern clay figures meant to illustrate life in Banpo.  Strangely, these were conceived as hairy,  knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, rather than as the anatomically modern humans they surely were! 

 Traces of old ideological interpretations were also very evident in the labels and texts, which tried to make the case that the Banpo people were matrilineal.  Possible, but not something very easily retrieved from the pre-literate record.  As strange as the clay "knuckle-dragger" figurines were the modern (and somewhat erotic!) bas-reliefs adorning the roofs of the reconstructed village.  As much as I applaud the Chinese authorities for acknowledging the sex lives of Neolithic folks, none of us could work out why this was particularly germane to Banpo! 

Next time, I will post about one of the most exciting archaeological experiences of my life (other than my own excavations, of course!):  visiting the Han Yanling Museum in Xi'an, site of the shorter, but infinitely more diverse terracotta army of men, women, pigs, dogs, and chickens!  

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