4,000-year-old artefacts offer insight on life in Pearl River Delta

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2002, 12:00am

Artefacts from a period spanning more than 4,000 years have been unearthed at Hong Kong's biggest archaeological site, offering a new perspective on how society developed across the Pearl River Delta region.


Officials have described the scale of the Sai Kung dig, which has just been completed, and what has been found, as unprecedented.


Full details of what it has yielded will not be made public until next year but the Sunday Morning Post has been told it is of great significance.


Four teams of archaeologists - 60 people in total from Shanxi, Hebei, Henan and Guangdong provinces - joined the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) to carry out work at the 3,600-square-metre site at Sha Ha in Sai Kung.


The work was conducted from October last year to September.


According to the AMO, about 40,000 possible relics, dating back to the Neolithic Period (2500 to 1500 BC), the Bronze Age (1500 to 221 BC), Tang-Song (618 to 1279) and Ming-Qing dynasties (1368 to 1911) have been unearthed.


An AMO spokeswoman said: 'These findings will not only help to portray the chronology of the local archaeological cultures, but also provide important clues to trace prehistoric society and settlement patterns of the whole Pearl River Delta area.'


But experts caution it may be too early to determine the site's value before reading the full report.


One locally based archaeologist was sceptical about the value of such large-scale projects and the huge amount of money spent on the excavation.


The $5.7-million project, which extended from the former Sha Kok Mei temporary housing area to the Beach Resort Hotel in Sai Kung, has now been replaced by a $65 million road network construction.


Originally scheduled to start in July, construction of the road was put on hold for two months because the excavation work was behind schedule.


A spokeswoman for the Civil Engineering Department said the road - which will begin near the Beach Resort Hotel and then be divided into two routes linking Sai Kung town and the former temporary housing area - is expected to be completed by the end of 2004.


The Planning Department has also proposed the area be developed into a low to medium-density residential area.


Among the artefacts discovered, a number of postholes, which are bases for structural supports for ancient residences, have been found, and scholars say they could offer a glimpse into early settlement patterns.


Tracey Lu Lie-dan, assistant professor of anthropology at Chinese University, said: 'From the postholes, we can know ancient people's way of living and the housing structure, so that we can learn of the pattern of early settlements.'


While stressing it would be hard to assess the site's value without reading the archaeological report, Professor Lu said: 'Generally speaking, the longer a site's history, the more information can be obtained.'


The Sunday Morning Post first reported on the Sha Ha site in February, when speculation was rife about its archaeological value because of the sheer scale of the dig and the resources involved.


Although the AMO believed the project was of great significance in tracing local history, William Meacham, an honorary research fellow of the University of Hong Kong's Centre of Asian Studies and an archaeologist with 30 years' experience, remained sceptical about the worth of the large-scale digging work, judging from what he called some vague remarks by the AMO.


'Every site can give you some clues on archaeology. What we want are some new and unique artefacts that we didn't know before,' Mr Meacham said.


He said it was not unusual to discover artefacts from different periods in such a site, given its large area. It would only be unusual if they could find a very rich cultural deposit in one area, he said, adding that they might only find a few discoveries in each period concerned.


Mr Meacham questioned the decision to spend such a huge amount of money on the excavation without extensive tests and research being undertaken beforehand. 'Is it worth spending $5.7 million of public money on the project?'


The AMO spokeswoman said archaeologists needed several years to compile the full report because of the large amount of research and assessment work, while a brief outline on the discoveries would be released later this year.


Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Independent Commission Against Corruption said an investigation into allegations of bribery and abuse of authority by six AMO officials in relation to more than $4 million worth of excavation contracts was still going on.