Miners Arrested for Damaging Chinese Archaeology Site

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing, China
for National Geographic News
March 14, 2008
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.

"Criminal charges in the case are now being finalized by the local people's procuratorate," said a judicial official at the Chaoyang People's Court in northeastern China, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the case.

He 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 criminal 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.

5,000-Year-Old Treasure Trove

Chinese archaeologists began excavating the Niuheliang neolithic site—located in the northeastern province of Liaoning in Manchuria—in the 1980s. (See photos of Manchuria.)

Their work 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. (Related: "Best, Worst World Heritage Sites Ranked" [November 15, 2006].)

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 impoverished rust belt where many state-run factories have been abandoned during two decades of market reforms.

Women of Power

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.

Ancient Astronomy

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.

"Chinese astronomy is known to date back to the Neolithic Age," Nelson added.

By creating calendars and observing the movements of heavenly bodies, the priestesses at Niuheliang could correlate occurrences in the sky with events on earth and help legitimize the rule of social and religious leaders, she 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."

The Institute of Archaeology's Liu said that some of the basic underpinnings of Chinese cosmology—which has a square Earth complemented by a circular heaven, tied together through a series of celestial events and forces—can be traced backed to Niuheliang.

"The site's circle-shaped and rectangular altars were later echoed in Beijing's imperial Temple of Heaven (which is round) and Temple of Earth (which is square)," he said.

"And the role of shamans in offering sacrifices to the forces of Heaven and Earth was later assumed by Chinese emperors, who performed complex rituals at the temples of Heaven and Earth each year."

Return to Glory

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.

"This will not affect China's application to have Niuheliang listed as a World Heritage site," he said.

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."

Since ratifying the United Nations' World Heritage Convention in 1985, China has seen 35 of its most important cultural and religious sites, ranging from the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City in Beijing to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, added to the World Heritage List.

(Related: "Panda Sanctuary in China Named World Heritage Site" [July 18, 2006].)

Inclusion on the list, which recognizes cultural and natural sites "which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art, or science," often leads to an explosive expansion of tourism.

Niuheliang is one of more than 70 Chinese sites that are awaiting approval.

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