Archaeologists busy at Qin Dynasty location in Shaanxi
On a bleak autumn morning, as archaeologist Zhang Yanglizheng was working at the ruins of the ancient city of Xianyang in Shaanxi province, he uncovered what appeared to be an imperial jade seal protruding from the earth.
“I was excited. We were in the right place. Something interesting had been bound to happen at some stage,” said Zhang, 33, from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology.
The object dated to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), but it was not an imperial seal because it did not have any inscriptions.
As digging continued, the site was found to be that of a palace where the emperor handled routine affairs and met officials from across the country.
The area, which is covered with loess soil, witnessed the glory days of the Qin Dynasty, the first unified state in Chinese history, and includes the cornerstones and foundations of ancient buildings.
It lies between the modern-day cities of Xi’an and Xianyang on the northern bank of the Weihe River, the largest tributary of the Yellow River in Shaanxi.
Archaeologists started exploring the ruins of Qin Dynasty palaces in the 1950s in an initial push that continued until the 1980s. Researchers from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology have been working on the ruins of Xianyang, the dynastic capital, since 2014.
Before deciding on the dig site, they explored an area of more than 5 million square meters.
“It took us two years to find the area of ancient Xianyang where we are now working,” Zhang said.
The ancient city was home to palaces, royal storehouses, residential quarters, burial areas and workshops.
“What is interesting is that the past 60 years of archaeological work have failed to unearth the city walls of ancient Xianyang,” Zhang said.
“We prefer to believe that Xianyang had no walls, but an explanation is still needed.”
At the archaeological work station in the ruins, a black-and-white satellite photo dotted with small flags of various colors hangs on a wall.
Xu Weihong, a researcher from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology and leader of the team excavating the Xianyang site, said that while the photo covers an area of more than 70 sq km, it only shows the northern part of the ancient city ruins.
“Xianyang was an ancient capital city irrigated by the River Wei and divided by the waterway into northern and southern areas,” she said.
“The city was long and narrow, with the longer side extending north to south. At present, we are focusing our work on the northern part along the river bank.”
After seven years of archaeological exploration led by Xu, the team of eight found that there were probably 47 large buildings in ancient Xianyang.
The two areas of the city were linked by a wooden bridge spanning the river.
A key building, the Epang Palace, used to stand in the unexplored southern area of the city. Xu said: “It is known as the top palace in the world. Built by the First Qin Emperor, it was a landmark for the unified state.”
In 1994, UNESCO ranked relics from the palace first in terms of “scale and intactness” among those found in ancient buildings worldwide.
Xu said: “Building Epang Palace was never completed. It was always under construction.”
About 700 meters north of the archaeological work station lies the No 1 palace site of Xianyang city.
Xu said that in ancient times a huge elevated platform built on impacted earth was constructed at the site to house a three-story building.
“On the first floor there were winding corridors. The second floor was home to smaller rooms, while the third floor housed the main hall of the palace, which covered more than 60 square meters. Wall tiles and washbasins have been found on the second floor,” she said.
“We can see the huge scale of the palace and gain a sense of just how luxurious it was,” she said.
Xu believes that imagination plays a key role in archaeological work, which centers on reconstructing the lives of ancient people, their births and deaths.
“We are definitely not hunting for treasures when we excavate a tomb. My work as an archaeologist is aimed at giving the ancient people a voice. It is very important to understand them through the objects we find,” she said.
Zhang, the archaeologist who uncovered the object at the Xianyang site, has great enthusiasm for his work. “Most of the time we are working with bits and pieces. Searching for them is a tedious process in the eyes of outsiders,” he said.
The team members have enjoyed lighter moments while excavating the site and working with cultural relics.
One afternoon last month, they were sorting tiles and fragments excavated from the site of Palace No 6, which housed the government office in the Qin Dynasty.
One of the archaeologists suddenly took a tile fragment to Zhang and asked him whether it was from the Qin or Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
Zhang took the fragment and examined it several times before confidently pronouncing, “It’s a Qin eaves tile.”
The team member who brought the piece to Zhang turned to a colleague and said: “See? I won. You owe me a cigarette.”
Wagers involving cigarettes are often made on archaeological sites, Zhang said.
“It’s like striking a balance between work and life,” he said, adding that the trick of differentiating Qin eave tiles from Han ones is that the former have compact straight lines, while those of the latter are slightly wider.
At the start of an archaeological project, the excavation team works day and night in the field and is usually stationed in villages near sites.
Team members on the Xianyang dig sleep and eat at the archaeological station, which is located in Niuyang village, about 20 km from the centers of modern-day Xi’an and Xianyang.
A native of Xi’an, Zhang often drives for an hour from the city’s downtown area to the station, where he stays for about a week.
Time seems to pass more slowly at the station than elsewhere as the team members excavate and study relics.
Archaeologists often use a Luoyang shovel, an ancient instrument that helps them identify soil structure and determine whether ruins lie beneath the surface.
The shovel can extract soil samples more than 10 meters under the ground. By examining the color and content of the soil raised by the shovel, archaeologists decide how to carry out excavations at a site.
A hole dug by the shovel is known as a cavern, and Zhang said a skilled team member can drill hundreds of caverns a day. To reach a layer of soil that bears no traces of human activity, the shovel needs to go deep under the ground.
Determining whether the soil has such traces is a basic skill the team members must master.
The team’s work site changes over time, but no matter the weather, excavation work never stops.
Zhang said they often chat with local villagers to gather information about possible archaeological sites.
In 2018, more than 600 kilograms of ox bones were discovered at a village near the work station. Rectangular holes had been cut in the bones, which could have been used as decorative items.
“There were many finished and unfinished works. We didn’t know how these products were completed before, but the bones tell us how each process was carried out. They matter more to us than some objects that have been unearthed intact,” Zhang said.
“They are all perfect artworks in our eyes. I see the wisdom of ancient people here. Finding these objects from ancient people’s lives is very interesting and much more fun than unearthing tombs.”
Zhang, who long yearned to work on archaeological excavations, became a member of Xu’s team after graduating from Northwest University in Xi’an.
His friends were proud of him. One of them followed suit, quitting his job at a bank to join the team a year ago.
Peers dealing with cultural relic protection often ask Zhang if there have been new discoveries at the excavation site.
In September 2006, work on constructing subway lines began throughout Xi’an, and at the end of last year, the city had eight such routes in operation.
Construction of subway and light rail lines has made commuting much easier for Xi’an residents. However, as more buildings have been built along the lines, archaeological work has been impeded to a certain extent.
“Excavation is actually a sort of ‘destruction’,” Zhang said. “The sites of ruins are buried 1.5 meters to 1.8 meters below ground, and tombs and cultural relics have often been uncovered during construction and subway engineering projects in Xi’an.
“We sometimes do analysis and scientific research onsite, but our principle is to minimize the amount of excavation.”
In 2018, the archaeological team found the main road in ancient Xianyang, with Xu naming it Empire Avenue.
Excavations determined that the road was more than 50 meters wide and had many wagon ruts in its center.
“After measuring them meticulously, we found that one of the tracks was 1.35 meters wide. Measuring it was painstaking work, as we had to compare the ruts very carefully and pair them one by one,” Xu said.
Three such avenues have been found by the team, and they form the main part of the road network in the northern area of ancient Xianyang, she added.
“For we archaeologists, this network is a framework for the city. As we cannot find the ancient city wall, there is no way of determining how large Xianyang was. We can only be guided by the road network.”
Standing on the platform just over 11 meters above the No 6 palace site, Zhang pointed to a straight asphalt road.
“Nowadays, our road engineers’ thoughts overlap with those of the ancients, with the roads in Xixian New Area built along the avenues of the Qin Dynasty. However, we still don’t know when the roads of the Qin Dynasty will be unearthed and revealed to the world,” he said.