Hong Kong is typically described as being no more than a small fishing village before five major clans settled in the New Territories during the Song dynasty about 900 years ago. But archaeologists now say it's probably far older and was a more prosperous community than is generally thought. The problem is that relics offering clues about Hong Kong settlements that may date as far back as 6,000 years are in danger of being lost or destroyed because of insufficient government protection, they warn. Surveys commissioned by the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) in the 1980s and 90s found relics buried in 237 sites across the city. About 800,000 items - mostly stone artefacts and shards of pottery - were unearthed during test digs and excavation work over the years, but they have mostly remained in storage. Many sites are 'disappearing both legally and illegally', says archaeologist William Meacham, an honorary research fellow at the University of Hong Kong's Centre of Asian Studies. Last year, the Hong Kong Archaeological Society found that Luk Keng Tsuen on Lantau, where some Tang dynasty kilns were found, had been turned into a barbecue area. 'They [archaeological sites] are a heritage treasure shared by all. If you destroy them they'll be gone forever,' says society chairman Cheng Kai-ming. About five years ago, Meacham was outraged to find several large village houses being built near the Pak Mong site on Lantau, a repository of pottery from the Western Han period. According to the AMO, construction around Pak Mong and Luk Keng Tsuen is not on 'major deposit areas' at the sites. But Meacham says the government should at least allow archaeologists to assess the site and its surroundings as more relics may be buried nearby. 'You never know - what looks like a minor site may turn into a major one when you start digging.' But the AMO says it does all it can to protect sites, often seeking funds from related government departments to conduct 'rescue excavations' when developers begin building on an archaeological site. For instance, HK$6 million has been allocated for a dig at So Kwun Wat in Tuen Mun, where there are plans to build a school. Yet other than that, the AMO leaves many important sites untouched. It says this is in line with the international practice of putting off digs until necessary because technological advances are likely to allow historians to retrieve more evidence than is possible with existing tools, which may destroy more than they reveal. 'Our principle is not to excavate the site if possible because a dig is an irreversible experiment. Some archaeology textbooks even call it a destructive process,' says Kevin Sun Tak-wing, the AMO's archaeology curator. Sun says that has been a global trend since the 70s as historical preservation is balanced against social and economic development. A regulation that came into force this year now requires heritage assessments to be made before any construction work is undertaken in Hong Kong. The developer or organisation behind any project must commission a licensed archaeologist for a study of the area and to make recommendations on a course of action. Although archaeologists agree with the AMO's approach for new excavations, they say the government should launch a scheme to monitor conditions at known sites, which may be threatened by human activity. Steven Ng Wai-hung, an archaeologist at an environmental management company, says that relics in Hong Kong extend beyond the 237 identified sites, but that many areas have been damaged because of a lack of government attention. 'Shouldn't [heritage authorities] at least send staff to check on these sites once in a while ... to make sure they're still intact,' he says. Ng says the government could set up museums or archaeological parks to preserve major sites and attract tourists. It's not an issue of money but of how conscious people are about protecting their heritage, he says, citing how prosperous villages in the Pearl River Delta set up display centres when historical sites are uncovered during construction projects. By contrast, Ng points to inaction in Hong Kong following a dig at Ma Wan in 1997 that uncovered 20 graves with cultural relics dating back to the late neolithic and early bronze ages. 'The excavation at Ma Wan was voted one of China's 10 major archaeological discoveries that year by mainland experts,' he says. 'Shouldn't the government consider preserving the site or building a museum there? If they did so, Hong Kong would have one more tourist attraction. But they decided just to dig everything out and put the relics in storage.' Liu Mao, a researcher at the Hong Kong Institute of Archaeology, says the government has done more to preserve cultural heritage as public concern about such issues has grown in recent years, particularly following the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier. 'But efforts are mostly concentrated on historic buildings and there's no mention of archaeology,' she says. Ng, who stumbled upon a site at Wong Tei Tung, in Sai Kung, during a hike in 2003, says a dig uncovered about 3,000 stone artefacts dating back more than 4,000 years. They found evidence that early settlers were quarrying stone for export. Meacham reckons the relics are between 5,000 and 7,000 years old, but some experts estimate they could date back 20,000 to 30,000 years. 'If that's true, it would be hugely important in world archaeology,' says Meacham, adding that further investigation is needed to determine the age of the site. 'Even if my estimate is correct, it is still a very important site. You don't have many of those around the world because it's a huge effort to quarry stone and [settlers] were obviously exporting and trading it.' Indeed, experts say Hong Kong has a richer history than most people realise. It was well known as one of China's 26 salt-making centres during the Song dynasty, but the discovery of a number of ancient kilns across the New Territories has also led Ng to conclude that Hong Kong had a flourishing lime-making industry during the Tang dynasty. Early coastal settlers were also found to have made notched quartz rings for export to the mainland as ornaments, suggesting that Hong Kong was a significant production and trading centre some 4,000 years ago, he says. 'For geographical reasons Hong Kong had become a port, a way station and a stop along the sea route to Southeast Asia. Many different people visited and stayed here, and as a result many artefacts were left behind,' he says. Liu urges the government to make better use of its excavated relics instead of leaving them in storage. The artefacts should be properly studied and displayed in exhibitions to educate the public about the city's history, she says. 'People should know that Hong Kong was more than a fishing village. This is particularly important for the younger generation. The older generation who came from the mainland generally don't think about the history of Hong Kong, but these young people were born and raised here. They should have more respect for their history.'