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

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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Cultural Heritage and Rapid Urbanisation in India

CHRUI

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) are pleased to announce a joint call for research proposals addressing the theme of ‘Cultural Heritage and Rapid Urbanisation in India’.  This call closes on 7th December.

Funding of up to £200,000 per project for UK applicants is available on a full economic cost (fEC) basis with AHRC meeting 80% of the fEC. Matched resources are available from ICHR for Indian applicants. Proposals should have a maximum duration of 24 months and will be expected to start on 14th February 2018.

The aim of this call is to allow researchers in the UK and India to collaborate on joint research projects which will address critical issues concerning cultural heritage, history and urbanisation in India, including those key challenges that emerged from the workshop. It is expected that projects funded under this call will explore how historical experiences of urbanisation can inform contemporary issues and policy and also examine the role that heritage can play in sustainable economic growth and social cohesion.

Further information, including details of how to apply, can be found on the website.

Queries may be directed to newtonfund@ahrc.ac.uk or telephone 01793 416060.


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Brazil/UK Creative Lab – opportunity to attend

Brazil

Social Change through Creativity and Culture is a new project that brings together academics, artists and creative practitioners from Brazil and the UK to initiate and collaborate on creative projects that directly address social challenges in specific Brazilian social contexts.

The project will immerse individuals in an innovative lab experience, intended to catalyse cross-disciplinary collaborations and dialogue, during an intensive 10-day period. Over the course of the lab, participants will be tasked with developing a practical idea to take forward together through further collaborative research over the following months.

For guidance and how to apply please see the AHRC website. Application deadline is 17th September 2015


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Networking Funding – UK/Brazil

Newton-Fund-chosen-logoLaunched under the Newton fund, there is an open funding call to build sustainable collaborations between the UK and Brazil. Funds can be used for travel, subsistence and other networking or collaborative activities, such as workshops, summer schools and exchanges (in either direction: from and to the UK). This is an exciting development in UK relations with Brazil as it is with CONFAP – the umbrella organisation for 26 state funding agencies and therefore broader than current engagement with FAPESP.

Applications to this call must meet UK Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) aims; this means applications must specifically address poverty alleviation or development issues. The call has several highlighted areas but the call is open across all research disciplines for any proposal that makes the case that it meets ODA requirements. (As with lots of international things, remember science = all research disciplines). The most obvious area of interest for arts and humanities researchers is in the highlighted area of ‘urban transformations’ but we anticipate those working on conflict also have the potential to make a case.

Projects are funded for up to £50K on the UK side with expected match funding from the Brazilian researchers (this will be funded by the Brazilian funding agencies) and are for 12 months duration. Deadline for applications is 17th October 2014.

Information on this funding opportunity (and all future calls) is available on the RCUK website . The Newton fund has £375 Million of funding over 5 years and involves the following countries – China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Turkey, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Egypt and Kazakhstan. Further information on activities under Newton Fund can be found on the BIS website.