Soviet Inspiration in Chinese Archaeology

By Liangren, Zhang | Antiquity, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Soviet Inspiration in Chinese Archaeology


Liangren, Zhang, Antiquity


The apprentices

In July 1958, Wang Bohong (1923-1974) and Wang Zhongshu (1925-), two young archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology (IA) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, arrived in Moscow (Wang & Wang 1959). Communist China was then only nine years old, and the Soviet Union had just recovered from the Second World War; the two countries, which were to split a few years later, were still enjoying their honeymoon (Mineo 1987; Whiting 1987). As a part of the Sino-Soviet scientific co-operation pact for that year, the two scholars were to undertake a three month tour of Soviet archaeology, in the role of shixi (apprentices). They visited the Institute of Archaeology at Moscow, the Institute for the History of Material Culture (IHMC) at Leningrad (renamed St Petersburg in 1991), and their counterparts in Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Gruzia (now Georgia) and Armenia, and even participated in excavations at Khoresm in Central Asia and Olivia by the Black Sea. Altogether they gained valuable insight into Soviet archaeology, from the Palaeolithic to the early Rus' and from academic courses to field practice.

The journey was designed to introduce the two Chinese colleagues, not just to the archaeology of the country, bur also to Soviet approaches and expertise. In Moscow, they learned that within the hierarchy of Soviet academic establishments the Institute of Archaeology was the senior and central institution in the field of archaeology, managing academic archaeology within the Russian Republic. The institute was all-encompassing in its territorial and temporal scope, comprising six divisions: Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Caucasus and Central Asia, Greco-Roman, Scythian-Sarmartian and Slavo-Russian. It also had a field section, which monitored all fieldwork within the Russian Republic and all excavations of sites of national significance, assessing the quality of each expedition's work and issuing excavation permits. The institute also sponsored a series of monographs: Reports of Investigations and Research, and two journals: Soviet Archaeology and Correspondence of the Institute of Archaeology. Moreover, the institute was home to cutting-edge technologies, hosting laboratories for chemical analysis, metal analysis, conservation, radiocarbon dating and early technology.

Wang Bohong and Wang Zhongshu noted that in addition to archaeological institutes, institutes of ethnology, museums and universities were all engaged in archaeological fieldwork; the archaeological workforce of the Soviet Union was therefore quite sizable. In addition, nearly all the expeditions were composed of personnel from a number of different institutions. The Olivian expedition by the Black Sea, for example, consisted of personnel from the IHMC, the Winter Palace Museum, Kiev University and the Ukraine Institute of Archaeology (archive of IA).

The Khoresm expedition to Central Asia, which they joined briefly, involved specialists from several disciplines. At Yak-Barsan, a Bronze Age site, they observed Soviet fieldwork methods with awe. The director, S.P. Tolstov (1907-1976), first showed them an aerial photographic map that charted canals, ditches, castles and villages in the vast desert. He then gave them a tour of sites in the area. Two factors were clearly hammered into their minds. First, the expedition was carefully planned and programmed: survey and test excavation were employed to gain a general overview of ancient cultures in the study region; they then chose where to excavate, what questions to address, and how long the project would take. Second, they placed the project in the broad context of the entire region.

At Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Wang Bohong and Wang Zhongshu visited the faculty of archaeology at the Central Asian University, one of five such faculties in the Soviet Union. Professor M.E. Masson (1897-1986), head of the faculty, told them that they covered three areas of study: field archaeology, museology and conservation. …

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