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23 March 2008
Chinese miners arrested for damaging Neolithic site

A group accused of operating clandestine mines across an important but sparsely guarded complex of Neolithic Chinese culture is now facing criminal trial, Chinese government officials say. The illicit iron-ore mines, accompanied by crude on-site refining facilities, seriously defaced the Niuheliang site, which holds some of China's earliest known temples, altars, sacred sculptures, and stargazing structures, according to the officials. A judicial official at the Chaoyang People's Court in northeastern China declined to provide any more details, and officials at the Chaoyang City People's Government and at the local cultural-heritage bureau declined to comment on the case.
     China's cultural relics law automatically makes important archaeological discoveries and cultural sites state property, while its law provides for prison terms of three to ten years for those who intentionally damage cultural heritage sites under state protection. Reports in China's government-run press also hinted that miners were working with some local administrators, 14 of whom are now being investigated by prosecutors.
     Chinese archaeologists began excavating the Niuheliang Neolithic site located in the northeastern province of Liaoning in Manchuria in the 1980s. They unearthed a 19-square-mile (50-square-kilometer) complex of religious ritual architecture decorated with mural paintings; jade carvings of humans, dragons, and tortoises; and elaborate stone tombs on hills throughout the site. Long-abandoned circular temples and astronomical structures were also discovered. The finds prompted China's government in 1996 to apply to have site inscribed on the United Nations' World Heritage List, though no decision has yet been made. Since then, three dozen state-run and private mines were ordered closed, 10,000 people were relocated out of the region, and a small staff of sentries were deployed to guard the site's perimeter. More thorough protective measures, however, were not implemented in Liaoning Province, a fairly area where many state-run factories have been abandoned during two decades of market reforms.
     Chinese officials have been battling encroachment by miners in an effort to preserve rare artifacts, including a "Goddess Temple" containing a 5,000-year-old painted clay sculpture that sits at the apex of the complex. The remarkably lifelike figure features "rosy cheeks, lips that were painted red, and eyes fashioned of sparkling blue-green disks of jade," said Liu Guoxiang, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Liu, who has extensively explored Niuheliang, said that the Goddess Temple and surrounding sacrificial altars underscore the uniqueness of the site. "In ancient times Earth goddesses were regarded as symbols of fertility, vitality, and the continuity of an ethnic group," Liu said. "This grand-size Goddess Temple and goddess figures found inside prove that goddess worship had a leading role in prehistoric Chinese religion."
     Sarah Nelson, an archaeology professor at the University of Denver who has joined a series of excavations at the site, said that the goddess and her temple might reflect an era when woman stood at or near the peak of power in an already highly stratified society. Political rulers looking to build monuments or commission religious icons might have been aided by priestess-diviners who helped ward off misfortune and scanned the skies for auspicious portents, Nelson said. Studies of the Goddess Temple suggest that those who presided over rituals and ceremonies at the heart of the Neolithic culture were also likely women, Nelson added.
     Other important ruins at risk include a nearby artificial hill, capped by a three-tiered circular altar constructed of white limestone and red granite. As yet no damage has been reported to the hill, though, which probably served to predict the summer and winter solstices, the spring and fall equinoxes, and other celestial phenomena, archaeologist Liu said. Robert Stencel is a professor of astronomy at the University of Denver who has studied the site. He said that the hilltop altar, along with other precisely aligned structures, might have formed the framework to measure "key solar and lunar rise and set points, which would make them usable today for simple seasonal calendar keeping and the beginning of study of eclipse cycles."
     Du Xiaofan, a cultural heritage conservation specialist at UNESCO's Beijing office, said that the Niuheliang center is now being restored. The illicit mines are now being refilled with earth, and trees are being planted to erase the geological scars caused by the mines. Du also said that the Chinese authorities have convened "a group of archaeologists, anthropologists, architectural experts, and conservationists to work out a 20-year master plan to excavate, preserve, and protect the site while introducing a program of sustainable tourism."

Source: National Geographic News (14 March 2008)

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