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20 July 2003
1,200 sites flooded by Yangtze dam

On 1st June the waters began rising on schedule in the 375 miles long Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River (China). A massive archaeological salvage effort during the later stages of its construction (Archaeo News, 8 June 2003) identified the area as one of the most culturally important in China, enriched local museums and provided impetus for the technical and financial advancement of Chinese archaeology. Nonetheless, nearly 1,200 sites of historical and archaeological importance have now been submerged with only a fraction of research completed.
     When construction of the dam was approved in 1992 no consideration was given to the potential loss to archaeology. A year later, following hurried consultations with Unesco, an initial budget of almost two million yuan ($250m) was earmarked for archaeological rescue. This sum was soon cut back to 300 million yuan ($37.5m) and inefficiencies in the distribution of the funds further reduced the impact on the ground. Academic institutions and the Planning Group for the Cultural Relic Protection of the Three Gorges Reservoir and Dam Construction pressed on in the face of these difficulties, which were to include looting of newly uncovered sites as work progressed. The plight of the archaeologists and the significance of their discoveries eventually attracted international publicity.
    By 2000, increasing pressure from within and outside China finally led to the allocation of substantial funds for a rescue operation. 100 teams of archaeologists from more than 20 provinces and cities began work on 120 of the most important sites. The 6,000 important artefacts recovered provide little more than a hint of the total potential of the region, which has emerged as one of the main meeting places between East and West in ancient China.
     The archaeological record shows continuous occupation from the late-Neolithic, with extensive remains of the Daxi culture (5000-3200 BCE) and the Chujialing culture (3200-2300 BCE). Archaeologists have been most excited by the Ba culture sites, the dating of which extends from late-Neolithic origins to the Warring States period (481-221 BCE). The archaeological work has revealed what little is known of the relationship of the Ba peoples to the Shu and Chu cultures. But virtually every dynastic period in China’s history is represented at the Three Gorges, down to the Quing period of 1644-1911 Ce.
     Losses include many standing monuments, although some have been removed wholesale and rampart walls have been erected to protect others. All told, however, the flooding has destroyed an irreplaceable historical record: seven millennia of settlement and cultural development.

Source: The Art Newspaper (14.7.2003)

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