Returning to Sanmenxia

By AN JIAYAO / 01-06-2022 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

An Jiayao on the Xiaohan Ancient Route in 2021 Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

In October 2021, I visited Sanmenxia, Henan Province, when participating in an event marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of modern Chinese archaeology. It’s been a long time since I last visited this city. Many memories started to well up. 

Yangshao Village National Archaeological Site Park
China’s modern archaeology started at Yangshao Village in Mianchi County, 60 kilometers east of Sanmenxia City, Henan Province. It was at Yangshao Village where Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson and Chinese archaeologist Yuan Fuli conducted modern China’s first archaeological excavation in October 1921. Their discoveries confirmed the existence of a Neolithic culture dated from around 7,000 to 5,000 years ago in China, which was characterized by polished stone tools and painted pottery. It was named the Yangshao culture in accordance with archaeological naming conventions. The discovery of the Yangshao culture proclaimed China’s rich Neolithic cultural relics for the first time, which is of far-reaching significance. After that, thousands of Yangshao cultural sites have been discovered on the vast territory from Gansu to Henan provinces.
In 1994, I surveyed archaeological sites in Henan with experts from the National Cultural Heritage Administration. It was my first time setting foot on this famous archaeological land. Yangshao Village was not much different from other villages in western Henan—loess, ravines, cave dwellings, and adobe houses. The Yangshao site was announced as a major historical and cultural site protected at the national level by the State Council in 1961, where factories and modern buildings are not allowed to be constructed, but neither nature nor humans have ever stopped eroding this site. How should we protect such historical ruins? Archaeologists were concerned over this problem.
I saw changes in Yangshao Village when participating in an academic symposium commemorating the 90th anniversary of the discovery of the Yangshao culture at Mianchi County, in 2011. The Yangshao Culture Museum had been built in Yangshao Village. In front of the museum, there are statues of four archaeologists who have made great contributions to the study of the Yangshao culture: Johan Gunnar Andersson, Yuan Fuli, Xia Nai, and my father, An Zhimin. 
In 1951, my father took part in the second archaeological excavation in Yangshao Village with Xia Nai. Now, scenes of the 90th anniversary commemoration leap before my eyes. I remember that many scholars from abroad came to attend this commemoration, including the curator of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Sweden, which housed collections from Johan Gunnar Andersson’s archaeological excavations in China. At the symposium, I met Yuan Fuli’s son Yuan Ding and Xia Nai’s son Xia Zhengkai, also committed to archaeological work.
Ten years later, I revisited Yangshao Village on October 17, 2021. This place has undergone great changes. More than 40 households in Yangshao Village, who lived around the archaeological site before, have moved away. Some moved into town, while others moved to neighboring villages, and worked at the Yangshao Village National Archaeological Site Park during the day. The park connects the Yangshao Cultural Museum, excavation memorial spots, cross-sections of cultural strata, archaeological exhibition zones, and other spots together, presenting archaeological achievements and the original environment of the Yangshao site. The huikeng [a Chinese archaeological term equivalent to midden, but better translated as “refuse pit” because it generally refers to the remains of pits which functioned as refuse areas during ancient times, with contents often used as criteria for site dating and chronology] and other remains on the cliffside have been protected in a gallery, marked with LED lights. 
The fourth excavation of the Yangshao site has begun, and young archaeologists are making new explorations.
Xiaohan Ancient Route
The first stop of my field trip on October 20, 2021, was the Shihao section of the Xiaohan Ancient Route at Sanmenxia. The Xiaohan Ancient Route refers to the ancient road between Luoyang [in present-day Henan Province] and the Tong Pass [a historical fortress located in today’s Shaanxi Province]. The Shihao section is a part of the eastern section of the Xiaohan Ancient Route, named for its proximity to Shihao Village. The Xiaohan Ancient Route is adjacent to Xiao Mountain in the south and the Yellow River in the north. It was an important road connecting Luoyang and Chang’an, two major cities of the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and Tang (618–907) dynasties. Usually, remains of historical roads are not likely to be preserved through history. Fortunately, the Shihao section of the Xiaohan Ancient Route was a stone road with a length of more than 1,300 meters. Long-term transportation has worn ruts in this limestone pavement, leaving ruts with a depth of 0.4 meters.
14 years ago, Zhao Fusheng, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Institute of Cultural Heritage, and I surveyed the remains of this route as experts working on the application for adding the Silk Road to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. I still remember that it was a hot and sticky day, and the officials from the provincial and county-level departments of cultural heritage, who cooperated with us, were all deeply concerned, because the Hangu Pass dated to the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE) we surveyed the previous day had been passed over for the application. The reason we decided to remove it from the application list was that the Hangu Pass was mainly used during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) and Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), which was earlier than the Silk Road. Moreover, there were few existing historical relics of the Qin and Han periods at the Hangu Pass, and the main building of the pass was restored to attract tourists after the 1990s.  
When arriving at the Shihao section of the Xiaohan Ancient Route, we found clear historical ruts formed due to traffic over a long period of time on the natural limestone pavement, as well as traces of using drill rods for construction in ancient times. I couldn’t help but say with excitement: “This is what we are looking for!” In June 2014, “Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor” was inscribed on the World Heritage List, and the Shihao section was added to the World Heritage List as the only remaining road of the Xiaohan Ancient Route.
This visit to the Shihao Section is very different from that of the last time. The bare mountainside has turned lush. The wooden plank pavement outside the exhibition hall leads to the road remains, and the historical ruts are clearly visible. There are only four members of staff working at the Shihao section of the Xiaohan Ancient Route, but they keep the site in good order. They look forward to more visitors.
Miaodigou Archaeological Site Park
The Miaodigou site, located in Sanmenxia, covers an area of 240,000 square meters. Miaodigou culture represents a transitional phase of the preceding Yangshao culture (c. 5000–7000 years ago) and the later Longshan culture (c. 4000–4600 years ago). With colorful patterns of painted pottery, Miaodigou culture started a magnificent art tide across prehistoric China, and laid the foundation for the formation of early China. 
In 1953, when my father An Zhimin led an archaeological team to survey the west of Henan, they discovered the Miaodigou site. From 1956 to 1957, in order to cooperate with the construction of the Sanmenxia Dam, my father presided over the archaeological excavation of the Miaodigou site as the deputy leader of the Sanmenxia Archaeological Team. Today, I came to this park to follow in the footsteps of my father and his peers.
The Miaodigou Archaeological Site Park is quiet. It mutes all the noise of the city. Everyone who walks in it feels calm and relaxed. Colorful patterns of painted pottery are widely applied in the design of this park. In the park, there are even the old green trains that archaeologists rode on in the past. 
The special exhibition “Memory of Miaodigou” at the Miaodigou Yangshao Culture Museum attracted me the most. A large number of pictures, documents, and other items tell me about the people and events of the two archaeological excavations at the Miaodigou site. The name of an excavation team member, Liu Yongcai, reminds me of my father’s 1957 diary entry:
“August 19th, Monday, Sunny
Comrade Liu Yongcai was electrocuted when excavating the tomb of a crown prince of the Guo state [a vassal state in China during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE)] at 7:45. He passed away two hours after being sent to hospital. Hearing the news, I hurried to the hospital, and sent a telegram to the institute [the Institute of Archaeology at CAS] that night.”
The following diary entry records in detail the process of inviting Liu Yongcai’s father to Sanmenxia, holding a memorial service for Liu, coating Liu’s coffin with an iron sheet, and transporting it back to Beijing. My father’s diary reveals that he, as the head of the archaeological team, felt guilty and blamed himself for Liu’s death. Liu Yongcai dedicated his life to China’s archaeology, and his life came to an end at age 20. However, colleagues from the Institute of Archaeology have never forgotten him. In 2007, 50 years after his death, the institute set up a new monument in front of his tomb. 
This seven-day trip in Sanmenxia fulfilled my old dreams. Thanks to the efforts made by several generations of archaeologists, archaeology is becoming popular in China, which is exciting. Archaeological site parks not only protect historical remains and relics, but also make cities and towns more attractive. My predecessors would be very pleased if they saw this scene.
An Jiayao is a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a researcher from the China Central Institute for Culture and History.