National Geographic : 2003 Jul
of corn that bordered the old airfield. "It might be completely different now from what it was 3,000 years ago." Beneath our feet the earth was riddled with tiny holes, the work of a joint project of the In stitute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the University of Minne sota, with support from the National Geographic Society. The holes were about two inches in diameter, and they had been dug with Luoyang spades-a tubular blade attached to a long pole. Each hole extended straight down for more than eight feet, deep enough to extract sediment cores containing traces of buried man-made features. At a glance, archaeologists can "read" such cores and tell whether they are standing above a bur ied wall, a tomb, or a rubbish pit. Jing and the others called this site Huanbei Shang City. Since 1996, when a systematic sur vey revealed evidence of a buried settlement, they had been mapping it with Luoyang spades, and by 1999 they had traced the city wall, which encloses an area of nearly two square miles. The site dates from roughly the 14th century B.C., during the peak of the Shang culture that flour ished on the Yellow River plain from about 1600 to 1045 B.C. Because Huanbei might be the area's first urban settlement, archaeologists see it as a rare opportunity to trace the early stages of civ ilization in China. Huanbei also represents the latest chapter in the rediscovery of the Shang and other Bronze Age cultures. A hundred years ago the Shang dynasty was as lost as this ancient city, exist ing only in historical texts that dated from the Zhou dynasty-hundreds of years after the Shang fell. While most Chinese scholars tradi tionally accepted such sources, Westerners often dismissed them as mythical. But over the course of the 20th century, the Shang steadily reappeared, the myths replaced by tangible artifacts: massive bronzes, eloquent oracle bones, burial complexes where thousands of people had been sacrificed to a hungry faith. China's recorded history starts with the Shang: Their writing is the earliest known script in East Asia. And history always seems to return to the Shang, because the search for this ancient cul ture has been shaped in part by the trials of modern China. Archaeologists like Jing uncover not only artifacts but also the subtle interplay between past and present. 64 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JULY 2003 Jing paused in the middle of the pockmarked field. He told me that in other parts of China archaeologists can recognize features on the horizon: a hill may represent a burial mound, and a ridge might reflect an old wall. But in this corner of Henan Province, river floods and redeposited loess soil have buried the past deep beneath the surface. "We're looking at human society in three dimensions," Jing said. "It's not just the surface that matters. We had to add a third dimension: the time dimension'. He squinted into the dis tance: cornstalks, soybean fields, parasol trees. Peasants working steadily. "You can look all around and see nothing," he continued. "But in fact this was the first city in the area. If you don't add time, you'll find nothing." THE REDISCOVERY OF THE SHANG BEGAN WITH MALARIA. THAT AT LEAST, IS THE LEGEND. In 1899 a sick member of Wang Yirong's family sent out to a pharmacist for turtle plastrons-the ventral shells-that could be used to make traditional Chinese med icine. Before the shells were ground up, some body in the family noticed that they were inscribed with strange characters that resembled written Chinese. Ever since, historians have argued about whether the tale is true. But there's no doubt that Wang Yirong, an expert in ancient Chinese texts, became the first major collector of the in scribed shells, called oracle bones, which he pur chased from pharmacies. To the average literate Chinese, the oracle bone characters were at first glance unintelligible, but classical scholars like Wang immediately recognized them as an early form of the Chinese script. Wang's scholarship came to an abrupt end in 1900, when the Boxer Uprising raged across the nation in protest of foreign occupation of Chinese territories. Wang, who was a Qing dynasty government official, reluctantly accepted the command of some of the Boxer forces. On August 14, when European, U.S., and Japanese troops entered Beijing to put down the Boxers, Wang committed suicide by drinking poison and jumping down a well.