Research beyond borders

Foundations of globalisation: Durham University archaeologists enter groundbreaking partnership with China in Beijing’s Forbidden City

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In this latest Guest Blog, Jack Smith from Research Councils UK China Office, talks about a phenomenal partnership that resulted in ‘outsiders’ being allowed to work within the walls of Beijing’s Forbidden City.

In May of 2017 a small delegation of archaeologists from the renowned Department of Archaeology at Durham University travelled to Beijing in order to begin a new collaboration with the staff of the prestigious Archaeology Institute of the Palace Museum. Their excitement was palpable, as they formed the first foreign team of archaeologists granted permission to undertake excavation within the walls of Beijing’s Forbidden City.

The Durham and Palace Museum team discussing the stratigraphy of the excavations. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Smith, RCUK China)

The Durham and Palace Museum team discussing the stratigraphy of the excavations. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Smith, RCUK China)

The exploratory project brings together the different skills and disciplines to form a complex collaboration designed to forge a robust academic partnership, to develop both institutions’ methodologies, and, ultimately, facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of the ancient networks that connected East and West and laid the foundations for modern-day globalisation.

One major focus of the project is to compare excavation technology and methodology. When archaeologists are working in the grounds of China’s most prestigious historical monument and one of the world’s most-visited World Heritage Sites, the stakes are particularly high. Modern archaeological excavation is a complex, highly scientific operation that demands a broad range of skills and expertise from its practitioners. A good understanding of sediments, stratigraphy, construction techniques and post-depositional processes are essential, and exhaustive on-site documentation is needed in order to establish a coherent record for each site. Equally important is the ability for teams to work closely together, sharing information and expertise to hone their skills even as they dig.

View of a reconstructed medieval 'dragon kiln' in the Longquan area visited by the team. (Photo courtesy of Jack Smith RCUK China)

View of a reconstructed medieval ‘dragon kiln’ in the Longquan area visited by the team. (Photo courtesy of Jack Smith RCUK China)

By working together in the Courtyard of Benevolent Tranquility, a part of the palace reserved for empresses, empress dowagers and highly-ranked concubines, both sides were able to compare excavation techniques and to learn from one another while also making sure that the evidence produced by each team is compatible and comparable.

The Durham and Palace Museum team beside one of the excavations outside the Courtyard of Benevolent Tranquillity. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Smith RCUK China)

The Durham and Palace Museum team beside one of the excavations outside the Courtyard of Benevolent Tranquillity. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Smith RCUK China)

A second focus of the collaboration is to further contemporary understanding of the development of the Forbidden City from its roots as a Yuan period (1279-1368) palace through its development into the centre of Chinese imperial power during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) periods, until its abandonment following the abdication of China’s last emperor. It is already clear from the work completed that the Forbidden City was never a static monument – it was constantly being reformed, re-built and re-conceived.

For example, just within the area explored by the Durham-Palace Museum collaboration, it has emerged that a monumental Buddhist temple later appears to have been turned over to kitchen-garden food production and storage. This sort of information on the daily realities of this palace, which was, in its 15th/16th century heyday, one of the centres of world power, is information that only archaeology can provide because historical records almost never record such details – details which give key insights into the way an institution such as the Forbidden City actually worked.

A third element is the study of trade and economic links between China and the Middle East/Mediterranean and Europe during the later Middle Ages. The 13th/14th centuries were a time when the volume of maritime exchange and commerce appears to have increased markedly across Eurasia – bringing the whole of the Old World more closely together. Numerous commodities were exchanged in the Indian Ocean at this time, including spices, incense, silk and other textiles, gold, ivory, timber and slaves.

A key commodity was Chinese ceramics – the famous stonewares and porcelain that led the world in terms of quality, artistry and durability for millennia and were prized by the wealthy across the world because of their cost and high status. Ceramics are equally prized by modern archaeologists because, unlike many other widely traded commodities, they are easily broken and regularly thrown away – thus entering the archaeological record in large numbers. Their durability ensures the fragments endure in the archaeological record for hundreds of years, unlike organic commodities such as silk and spices. Researchers can then use them as a trail of breadcrumbs to minutely trace the routes and networks travelled by medieval merchants.

The Durham/Beijing team therefore has matched experts in medieval trade in the Gulf and Arabian Sea with specialists from the Palace Museum who are world authorities on the production and classification of Chinese ceramics, able to trace even tiny fragments to the Chinese kilns they were originally fired in.

The underlying research aim of this part of the project is to use unique evidence to investigate what might be termed ‘proto-globalisation’. Through archaeological surveys it is possible to measure the economic effect that maritime trade had on the coastal emporia and their hinterlands and also to understand how the kiln sites in China that were responsible for producing the ceramics stimulated development in their own regions. A key intention is to understand to what degree global trade stimulated economic development at both ends of the trade route.

Is it possible to trace the emergence of parallel and inter-dependent economic development across such a wide area at such an early period? Through partnerships between leading experts on both ends of the Silk Road, we can further our understanding of the complex networks that allowed people, goods and ideas to move between East and West since ancient times.


Development through the Creative Economy in China, the latest Newton Funding call for Joint UK-China research projects is now open. Closing date 26th April 2018.

For more information please visit the website , telephone 01793 416000 or email newtonfund@ahrc.ac.uk

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Beijing, Forbidden City

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