Protracted negotiations with China over Hong Kong's political future have not stalled ambitious plans to reshape the territory's infrastructure. The harbour is shrinking fast as new land is claimed from the sea and ten huge projects centred on a new airport on Lantau Island have turned the Pearl River approaches into a vast land formation site.
Working one step ahead of the developers, Hong Kong's archaeologists are salvaging evidence of the early history of the islands and the Kowloon peninsula which make up modern Hong Kong. They are finding intriguing signs of early permanent habitation; some spectacular artefacts and indications that prehistoric settlers included people of skill and rank.
Chiu Sui-tsan, curator at the Hong Kong government's Antiques & Monuments Office explains: 'Hong Kong is very rich in archaeology: but site protection is difficult. The announcement that the new airport was to be built on the Lantau site gave us a nightmare -- but after painstaking discussion we managed to negotiate time for excavation'.
Work started in 1990 at Chek Lap Kok (then a mountainous island off Lantau: now flattened to form part of the airport platform). Racing against time the Hong Kong Archaeological Society, with funding from the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, first made a general survey. 'It was very successful', Chiu said. 'They unearthed a wealth of material including Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery, axe heads and quartz rings'.
A granite slab temple from the historic period was dismantled stone by stone and resited at Tung Chung. Another rescue involving the army used a marine landing craft and a truck-mounted crane to move a 1,500 year old Tang dynasty lime kiln which will become a feature of the new airport. To help airport engineers avoid archaeological sites, a Hong Kong Chinese University field team surveyed the coastal strip of North Lantau where the airport expressway link will run.
'Most early Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements in the Pearl River estuary were on the shore,' Chiu explained. 'The people were probably seafarers and 90 per cent of sites are on sandbars. One typical site at Yung Long (where a new power station is being built) produced three spectacular ornamental axe heads. 'Nothing …