It’s a Golden Age for Chinese Archaeology — And the West is Ignoring ItRoundup
tags: archaeology, Chinese history
Early in April, news broke that a 3,000-year-old “lost golden city” had been discovered in Luxor, Egypt. Described in some articles as the most important find since the 1922 discovery of the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamen, the city of Aten, founded sometime between 1391 and 1353 B.C. — during Egypt’s 18th dynasty — appears to have been the largest settlement of that era.
The discovery was prominently covered by such outlets as ABC, NPR, The Washington Post and the New York Times, which noted it comes as “Egyptology is having a big moment,” including not just the Aten finds but a Netflix documentary on sarcophagi in Saqqara and the buildup toward the long-anticipated opening of a new Grand Egyptian Museum sometime this year.
The lavish coverage of the Aten dig contrasted with the lack of attention given in the United States, two weeks before, to a stunning new set of discoveries, dating to about 1,200 B.C. at the site of Sanxingdui in Sichuan province, China, near Chengdu. There archaeologists unearthed more than 500 objects, including a large gold mask, ivory, bronzes and remnants of silk — with more coming. The ivory finds include whole tusks of Asian elephants — evidence of tribute brought to the Sanxingdui leaders from across the Sichuan region — and anthropomorphic bronze sculptures distinct from other contemporary East Asian bronzes (which were primarily ritual vessels and weapons).
New, highly meticulous archaeological work is providing unprecedented detail about this important site, a crucial window into an early state in East Asia. If U.S. outlets largely ignored the news, media interest in China was intense, with multiday, prime-time coverage, including live broadcast of the excavations. And the attention was warranted: Discoveries at Sanxingdui have totally transformed our understanding of how multiple, regionally distinct yet interrelated early cultures intertwined to produce what came to be understood as “Chinese” civilization.
Why is there such a gap in the attention paid in the West to the Egyptian archaeology, as opposed to Chinese archaeology — given that each is important to our understanding of human history? Egypt strikes a chord for two reasons. First, there is a kind of romanticism that is the legacy of colonialism: Stories of Western archaeologists competing to find tombs in the 19th century riveted Western Europeans, and today’s news coverage is a product of that imperialist tradition (even though the team that discovered Aten was Egyptian). Second, attention to discoveries in the Mediterranean world reflects a persistent bias situating the United States as a lineal descendant, via Europe, of Mediterranean civilizations. Links between ancient Egypt and Greece and Rome — and Egypt’s appearance in the Christian Bible — enabled ancient Egypt to be appropriated and incorporated into European heritage, and therefore into the story of American identity. In short, high-profile finds in Egyptian archaeology are seen to represent a thread of the foundation of the story of us.
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