Wednesday, July 19, 2006

To excavate or not to excavate?

Xinhua - English: "Many experts have confirmed that the Qianling Mausoleum is truly one of China's most outstanding examples of an imperial tomb.

It is so special because it was carved out of a mountainside, and is estimated to contain about 500 tons of cultural relics including jewels, calligraphy, paintings, silk and ceramics. And it is virtually unique because it has never been robbed.

Given its virtually incomparable nature, any proposal to excavate the site is bound to spark controversy.

With their plan to investigate the site, archaeologists from Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, where the mausoleum is located, have kick-started the latest debate on this thorny issue.

Those in favour of the excavation have repeatedly stated that technologies are advanced enough to preserve any cultural relics unearthed from the mausoleum, adding that these cultural relics will give a clearer picture of life 1,300 years ago during the Tang Dynasty.

However, financial gain is another important reason behind their call for the site to be excavated. A local archaeologist predicted that if the mausoleum is excavated and opened as a museum exhibiting the unearthed cultural relics, it would attract at least 5 million tourists annually and would give local economic development a great fillip.

The contents of this mausoleum, where the legendary Tang Empress Wu Zetian and her husband Emperor Gaozong were buried together, may shed more light on these mysterious figures. It is also believed that a famous work by well-known calligrapher Wang Xizhi may also be buried in the tomb. It is quite probable that the excavation may create a sensation, which will undoubtedly attract tourists in their droves."

I, myself, have mixed feelings about this controversy. Although silk and paper items are extremely fragile and have disintegrated in past excavations, their presence in this fabulous cache of cultural art should not be the deciding factor in sanctioning its excavation. I fear that waiting to excavate a major site like this will merely increase the probability that much more careless tomb robbers will find a way to hijack the contents that can be salvaged. I would rather have the bulk of the artifacts preserved and made available for study and appreciation than wait for the possibility that more advanced preservation techniques will be developed.