In fast-paced metropolitan Hong Kong, it is easy to forget the past, but a recent slew of underground and underwater discoveries have reminded people that their city has a long history. An archaeological site dating back to the Song dynasty (960-1279) unearthed along an under-construction railway line, a shipwreck found in Wan Chai's waters during dredging works, and more recently the remains of a purported wartime sunken ship found by divers off Po Toi Island have all sparked calls - even if briefly - for the redoubling of efforts at historical investigation and preservation. Yet what are the policies governing the city's hidden ancestral assets? While many think of Hong Kong as a young island discovered only in 1842, the city has ancient roots. More than 200 spots here have been officially identified as "sites of archaeological interest", with remains dating as far back as the Stone Age. Among the best-known sites are the Lei Cheng Uk tomb from the Eastern Han dynasty (AD25-220) and the remnants of the Kowloon Walled City built by the Qing dynasty in 1847. Some of the less publicised but historically significant sites are the 20 burial spots of the late Neolithic to early Bronze Age in Ma Wan and the old kiln in Wun Yiu village, Tai Po, dating back to before 1688 - all evidence of a rich cultural heritage. But the archaeological potential casts into sharp relief some long-standing problems in the system, say insiders in the field. "Unfortunately there are too few people engaged in archaeological work in Hong Kong and there is no professional body," one said. "In the long run, a professional body should be set up to regulate the professional qualifications, set working standards and codes of conduct … and to make guidelines that enhance reasonable competition in contract archaeology." The comment was made not by an anti-government critic, but by Kevin Sun Tak-wing, then head of the Antiquities and Monuments Office's (AMO) archaeology team, at an academic conference in Manila in 2006. He was lamenting the fact that Hong Kong had only about 10 archaeologists conducting fieldwork then. At another international conference in Beijing in 2008, he was equally candid. He said Hong Kong had the most outdated antiquities law in the whole Greater China region. The laws have not been revised since their enactment in 1976. By contrast, the mainland updated its rules in 2002, with Taiwan doing so in 2005 and Macau in 2008. To Kwa Wan finds spark debate Today, the number of active field archaeologists is still only about a dozen. No progress has been made towards a professional regulatory body and the antiquities law is stuck in time. These problems, often aired only within the profession, generated wider attention, though, when an archaeological project caught the public's eye. Last year, news about old wells and thousands of other relics found near the To Kwa Wan station of the MTR's under-construction Sha Tin-Central link sparked a fierce debate in the city. Some wanted the antiquities removed quickly so that the new railway could be built as soon as possible. Others asked for them to be preserved at the site and for changes to the railway project. The MTR Corporation and the government announced a multibillion-dollar plan to redesign the station to showcase the historic finds at their original positions. Archaeologists were excited by two Song dynasty stone wells unearthed at the site. But most of the finds were not as rare as lay commentators claimed. Dr Sharon Wong Wai-yee, a Chinese University archaeologist specialising in trade ceramics, has inspected the Song dynasty ceramics unearthed at the To Kwa Wan site at the AMO's invitation. She found the pieces to be largely similar to past discoveries in Guangzhou and not of particularly high quality. The finds support the widely held theory that Hong Kong was an important trading port complementing the main one in Guangzhou in that period. Although the discovery was not groundbreaking, Wong supports the decision to incorporate the relics in the future MTR station for display. She hopes the railway station-cum-museum - the first of its kind in Hong Kong - will get more people interested in archaeology. "There is professional archaeology, but there should also be public archaeology," she said, adding: "But public archaeology should not override professional archaeology." Insiders within the profession are divided on how to handle the To Kwa Wan finds. Unlike Wong, Professor Tang Chung, who has studied the historic wells discovered there, and William Meacham, former chairman of the Hong Kong Archaeological Society, have both argued that the relics can be moved to museums, in keeping with international standards. Still, whatever the merits of either move, the experts agree that the decision-making process itself needs to be scrutinised. Contracts versus research First, there appears to be no peer review of commercialised archaeology, as this case shows. A group of anonymous archaeologists, with their identities verified by the society, wrote an open letter casting doubt on the professional standards of the interim report the MTR Corp submitted to the government. Meacham says he wrote to then MTR chief executive Jay Walder offering to inspect the findings and lining up other local archaeologists. He received a letter of thanks but no word on his offer. The government directed the MTR Corp to hire a licensed archaeologist to carry out the excavation under the "contract archaeology" system. Under such a commercial form of archaeology that began in Britain in the 1970s and was later adopted in Hong Kong, archaeological investigations are contracted out by the government or developers. Such digs are often done when a site faces an imminent development threat - a practice known as "rescue archaeology". The Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance enacted in Hong Kong in 1998 requires proponents of development projects to hire archaeologists to dig an area whenever the government deems it necessary. Meacham says such a system may help to save relics, but risks compromising research quality. "If there is a museum team or a university team whose work is not bound by development plans, you'd be choosing sites to research that you think worth researching," he said. "It's a pretty narrow view to do rescue archaeology." For years, he has been advocating for the establishment of a professional regulatory body to overcome this problem, just as Sun did in his 2006 article. The society Meacham used to chair has no regulatory role. Katty Law Ngar-ning, a heritage activist and member of the Sacred Hill Monument Concern Group, says the To Kwa Wan case illustrates the conflict-of-interest issues that developers face in archaeological inquiries that could threaten their own projects. "The MTR has vested commercial interests and has incentives to get the railway built as soon as possible. They don't attach values to the relics," she said. Her group has met officials from the AMO during the debate, but failed to obtain complete information about all the archaeological features found. Law says the public has no way of knowing how the government chose some items to preserve on the site and what to salvage. The MTR Corp declined to comment on the issue. A spokeswoman for the AMO maintains that the contract archaeologists were subject to scrutiny. "Project proponents do have their vested interests, that is why they are required to find independent experts … The AMO has a team to monitor the excavation on site and takes their monthly briefs," she said. "The whole monitoring system is very clear," she insisted, adding that contract archaeologists must obtain licences before starting any excavation. As for a professional council, she said the small number of archaeologists made it hard to set one up. Under the ordinance, developers are not required to publish reports on the findings. Dr Liu Wensuo of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, the archaeologist hired by the MTR's consultant company to lead the excavation, was invited to attend open meetings of the Antiquities Advisory Board to explain his findings only after the project stirred public controversy in May last year. The AMO later created a webpage on the excavation and released related board discussion papers. The revised design of the MTR station was then announced. But the public was not consulted amid the heated debate over the future of the site. This was in contrast with another archaeology discovery in the Kai Tak area - the Qing-era Lung Tsun Stone Bridge found in 2008, for which the government launched two rounds of publicity and an open design competition to invite conservation plans. The spokeswoman said the AMO understood the public's desire to get the latest information, but she maintained that raw information would also not be meaningful. "When asked to entertain some requests, we cannot just publish bits of information without thorough study. What do 10 pieces of ceramics remnants mean?" After the episode, however, Tang, director of Chinese University's Centre for Chinese Archaeology and Art, warned that away from the glare of public attention, relics in rural parts of the New Territories were in fact facing the biggest threats. A couple of years ago he took his students to the Tai Wan archaeological site on Lamma Island, where he had found important Bronze Age artefacts in 1990. "We saw holes that were clearly the result of unauthorised excavation of sand. Weeds were growing everywhere. The site was not taken care of at all." The MTR project in To Kwa Wan is still awaiting a full report on the archaeological finds. The public and professional debate sparked by the discovery at the site may then be reignited. But few doubt that the momentum will force a policy rethink on Hong Kong's ancestral treasures. For now, it appears, what is past will often lie forgotten.