To the Silk Road
— The Archaeology Communications between the Palace Museum and Durham University
From 3rd to 24th May, a team of archaeologists from Durham University, UK, visited the Palace Museum in Beijing in order to exchange and discuss archaeological techniques and methodologies and for a study trip to the south of China. On 9th May, the Durham University delegation, including Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor and warden of Durham University, Professor Daniel Donoghue, Dean of the International Office, and Professor Robin Skeates, Head of the Archaeology Department, visited the Palace Museum to meet with the members of the archaeological team. Further discussions between the Palace Museum and Durham University were then conducted. This three-week communication and collaboration visit is the first step in a larger program based around the memorandum of understanding between the Palace Museum and Durham University which includes academic exchanges, collaborative research and museum exhibitions, among other cultural activities. It is a ministerial-level project between China and the UK signed on 6th December 2016 in Shanghai.
Join together, explore the world
On 9th May, accompanied by Professor Lou Wei, the Deputy Director of the Palace Museum, the Durham University delegation visited the Cining Palace Garden archaeology site within the Palace Museum, and met the archaeology team from Durham University. Presented below is an interview with Professor Stuart Corbridge conducted by the Palace Museum at the archaeology site:
Question 1: What role does Durham University play in archaeology in the UK?
Professor Corbridge: Durham University has one of the world's best departments of archaeology. It’s currently ranked in the top four in the world, in the QS system, along with the very best universities in the world. This has a lot to do with the fact that the department conducts very high quality academic research which is strong in a number of different areas. We can go all the way from the scientific side of the discipline through to the more cultural and interpretive side. We also have tremendous regional coverage; here we are in China, for example, which is a great honor for us and it’s absolutely fantastic for Durham University to be in the Forbidden City, but we also have expertise across Europe, in the Americas and in South Asia as well. In addition, we also have Archaeological Services Durham University, the University’s commercial archaeology arm, which works across Britain and abroad and is another reason why archaeology at Durham is so strong. So I think it is the breadth of our coverage as well as the very distinguished faculty that make it such a good department.
Question 2: In the education sector, Durham University is one of the best universities in the world, and has many top-ranked research institutes and departments. As you know, the Palace Museum has internationally renowned Chinese collections and a high reputation of research, in particular relating to the conservation, management and study of Chinese artefacts. The Palace Museum is also an institute which collaborates with ICOM (The International Council of Museums) in training professional museum curators. My second question is about your perspectives and hopes for the co-education projects between Durham University and the Palace Museum?
Professor Corbridge: As you said, Durham is a world top 100 university. We have great faculties – science, social science, and the arts. Here we are in the Forbidden City, which to my mind is the most astonishing artefact of human creation. Working with the Palace Museum with all of its expertise, we have started on very strong foundations - perhaps a good metaphor for the archaeological excavation. What we wanted at Durham is a partnership with the Palace Museum, and in terms of archaeology, there are Chinese traditions we can learn from, interpretations of Chinese artefacts we can learn from, and hopefully we can bring certain expertise as well from the United Kingdom. So I think we are at a very promising stage, a juncture where we can share ideas and learn from one another. That is really what we want at Durham University and it's certainly a great honor for us to be here.
Question 3: It is well known that communication between different civilizations has a long history. The so-called Silk Road is a historical example of cultural exchange of this type. We understand that Durham University has a strong tradition of research into the Middle East, and Durham University is supporting studies in this research area. One of the most important projects in this collaboration between Durham and the Palace Museum will be research into the archaeology of the Middle East and its connections to the Silk Road. May I ask how Durham University will support research into the ancient communications between east and west, particular in archaeological research?
Professor Corbridge: Yes, definitely. I think that although we tend to think of globalization as quite a recent development, throughout history the world has been connected along routes such as the Silk Road. We can find evidence for this throughout the old world; for example, a member of Durham University has recently uncovered medieval Chinese ceramics in Spain. These kinds of discovery show that there has been this long history of interconnection and I believe that understanding these strong connections between the Orient and the Occident over a very long period is important. We have the specific expertise to unravel this history at Durham, including the work in Spain but also in India and in the Middle East as you mentioned. For the University now, we have ambitions to be a truly global university and China is going to be absolutely vital to achieving this goal going forward. We already have large numbers of Chinese students in Durham. So this collaboration, this partnership, is very important for us. A globalized university has to have an understanding of the historical development of globalization and so exploring the links between China and the west is fundamental. This collaboration is going to be very important for Durham and we hope it will also be important for the Palace Museum.
Question 4: My last question is about your expectations from this collaboration?
Professor Corbridge: Lots of great things will come out of our collaboration. For example, in Durham we have the University’s Oriental Museum which has an important collection of Chinese artefacts, including ceramics, and we welcome the expertise of the Palace Museum in enhancing our understanding of this collection, so that sort of close working relationship between the two institutions is very important for us. Today I am very lucky to be here in Beijing, which is a city I know quite well. I've been here many times but we look forward to having colleagues from the Palace Museum coming to visit us in Durham, so that you can help us understand some of our history, just as we too can hopefully help you to understand some of yours here in China.
After visiting the archaeology site, the Durham University delegation also visited the Grand Heaven Temple, a Taoist temple dating to the Ming Dynasty, to view the ongoing building conservation works to restore the ancient Chinese buildings. Mr Wu Wei, the conservation project leader, introduced the techniques of building conservation in the Palace Museum. In order to better understand the structure of ancient Chinese buildings, Mr Wu applied archaeological methods to the conservation of the structures.
After visiting the Grand Heaven Temple, the delegation met with Professor Shan Jixiang, Director of the Palace Museum and Professor Lou Wei, to discuss the future perspectives of the collaboration within the framework of the ‘One Belt One Road’ project. Three main collaboration areas, including archaeological research, co-education projects and scholarly exchange, were agreed.
Theory and Practice: a comparative discussion of Chinese and British Archaeological Methods
The archaeology team from Durham University visited China for three weeks. The visit mainly included: academic seminars, study trips and the discussion of archaeological excavation techniques.
On 5th May, Professor Zhang Zhongpei, former director of the Palace museum, gave a lecture to the team from Durham University and the staff of the Palace Museum. Professor Zhang introduced the background to the establishment of the Palace Museum, and explained: ‘how to research the Palace Museum from the diverse domains of architecture, archaeology and the protection of patrimony and relics’. Professor Zhang also introduced the history of Chinese archaeology: particularly mentioning the first generation of Chinese archaeologists, including Professor Li Ji, Professor Liang Siyong and Professor Xia Nai and their contributions to Chinese archaeology. He emphasised that Chinese archaeology was initially inspired by western archaeological theories. Following longstanding debates and the experience of archaeological excavations in north China, particular in the Loess Plateau, two key concepts were developed in Chinese archaeology by these first Chinese archaeologists: Chinese archaeological stratigraphy and hierarchical typology.
In the following days, the archaeological team of Durham University visited the conservation works at the Grand Heaven Temple and the archaeology site of the Old Summer Palace. These visits provided useful knowledge for the Durham archaeology team relating to the history and archaeology of the Chinese Ming and Qing Palaces, as well as Chinese archaeology and excavation methodologies.
From 13th to 18th May, the Durham archaeology team and the Palace Museum team visited Zhejiang Province in south China, including the cities of Longquan and Hangzhou. In Longquan, the visit aimed to provide an overview of the ancient Longquan celadon ceramic industry and manufacturing techniques, and this visit included the key Longquan celadon kiln sites and museums including Fengdongyan kiln site, Xiaomei kiln site, Xikou kiln site at Dayao and Jincun villages, Longquan Celadon Museum and the Piyun Celadon Cultural industry Park. In Hangzhou, the archaeology teams visited the Housi’ao Yue Kiln sites at Shanglinhu Lake and Zhejiang Provincial Museum. This visit allowed both Chinese and British scholars to better understand the development and history of Chinese celadon from the 7th to the 18th centuries in Zhejiang province. It particularly provided an insight into the scale of the celadon industry and its cultural impact in different historical periods. This study visits in south China form the basis for further collaborations between the Palace Museum and Durham University, which aim to study the ‘One Belt One Road’ from an archaeological perspective in the near future.
The core of this three-week collaboration was the comparison and exchange of archaeological excavation techniques. To accomplish this, the Durham archaeology team spent two weeks participating in archaeological excavation at the Cining Palace Garden Archaeological site, to compare excavation methods, skills, recording systems and post-archaeological works with the Palace Museum. The Cining Palace Garden Archaeological site is a project of the Palace Museum Archaeology Institute which has been underway since 2015. It aims to explore the history of the city of Beijing and palace remains including the Forbidden City. In order to better protect the environment and relics of the Palace Museum, these excavations are undertaken under the principle of ‘stop digging when new evidence is seen’. The excavations undertaken in this collaboration were based in trenches T0202 and T0203 at the south part of the site. On 22nd May, based on these excavations, a workshop between the Durham University archaeology team and the Palace Museum Archaeology Institute discussed the outcomes and compared the strengths and weaknesses of the different methodologies. Dr Derek Kennet from the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, began by giving a presentation comparing Chinese and British excavation techniques. He mentioned that some differences were apparent including the pre-excavation planning, the use of the grid system of excavation, recoding system, matrix and phasing systems and post-excavation analysis. Ms Natalie Swann, a Senior Project Archaeologist from Archaeological Services, Durham University, further explained that the recording system used in the UK is designed with standardization in mind. This aims to make sure the recording system can be easily used by different excavators in an archaeological project. Dr Zhai Yi from the Archaeology Institute of the Palace Museum mentioned that in China, an archaeological journal, or field notebook, is widely used to record fieldwork information, which can be helpful to fully record the details of the excavation. Professor Li Ji, the head of the Archaeology Institute of the Palace Museum concluded with three key points: first, the British archaeological excavation techniques are designed to be systematic and follow a standardised methodology, and on the Chinese side the archaeological excavations use traditional and practical methods. He looks forward to a combination of both methods in future collaborations; second, he also looks forward to a combination of recording systems from the UK and China, which can be suitable for both data/quantified information recording following the Chinese method; third, he wants to have an open mind for the contributions of both great archaeological institutes in the future collaborations. Both sides have their own traditions and advantages in the area of archaeology studies, which could greatly enhance the results of this collaboration with tangible outcomes of the archaeological research in the Persian Gulf.
This three-week collaboration between Durham University and the Palace Museum was a great success with many highly valuable outcomes. This is an excellent first step for both sides and will hopefully lead to future co-projects, including co-excavations and research projects into the historical and archaeological background of the ‘One Belt One Road’, research into ancient Chinese cultural activities and communications, and co-education projects in archaeology and museology.