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Breaking New Ground

From TV shows to community digs, authorities and local institutions are seeking out creative ways to engage the public in China’s latest archaeological research

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

A singer wears a copy of a gold mask discovered at Sanxingdui Ruins Site on CCTV archaeology program National Treasure, which promotes popular appreciation of antiquities

Quqi Qiudaoyu’s unboxing video involves more dirt than most. The livestreamer takes out a clump of soil from a box and uses the included shovel to sift through it.  

She discovers three pottery shards inside that when pieced together make a figurine. “We need to glue the pieces, fill the cracks with plaster and polish it,” Quqi Qiudaoyu told her viewers on Douyin, China’s TikTok. “It’s really hard work.”  

She was working on a “cultural relics repair” box. The 69-yuan (US$10) product from Henan Museum in Zhengzhou contains pieces of a replica from its collection mixed into dirt. The idea is to simulate the work of a real archaeologist.  

The product quickly drew attention on social media platforms such as Douyin, Bilibili and Xiaohongshu. Henan Museum’s store on shopping site Tmall has sold more than 3,000 boxes in a month.  

This is not the museum’s first hit product. Media reported the museum’s previous version, which contained an unbroken replica of a relic in soil, sold out within minutes of its release in 2020.  

“We hope that people can get a deeper understanding of archaeology and history by experiencing what it’s like to be an archaeologist,” Ma Xiaolin, curator of Henan Museum, told NewsChina. “I think archaeology and artifacts should not be isolated in academia like they used to,” he added.  

The campaign reflects a new approach to public outreach among museums that involves volunteering, activities and products.  

Digging the Dig 
Efforts to better engage the public in archaeology are not new in China. In 1949, archaeologist Xia Nai published a book chronicling his work at the now UNESCO-listed Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province.  

However, the idea of “public archaeology” – a Western movement beginning in the 1970s that involves outreach programs – did not reach China until the 1990s.  

At the time, there was debate over how to interpret “public.” Some argued it meant public relations, while others said it meant bringing archaeology to the masses.  

A watershed moment came in 2009 with the excavation of the tomb of Cao Cao, the emperor-general of the Wei state during the turbulent Three Kingdoms Period (220- 280).  

Henan Provincial Administration of Cultural Heritage announced it had identified Cao Cao’s tomb in Anyang County, supporting their claim with six points of evidence, including historical archives that placed him in the area around the time of his death. However, many were skeptical.  

Yuan Jixi, a Chinese literature professor at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, argued the evidence was circumstantial and authorities had spoken too soon. Ma Weidu, a noted antiques appraiser, expressed his doubts over the authenticity of some of the physical evidence, including the stone steles at the site – important identifiers for ancient tombs. Ma’s comments drew substantial public attention, leading some to question the integrity of the dig and the motives behind the local government’s announcement.  

Although local authorities stood by the claim, citing historical records and analysis, public doubt lingered for nearly a decade. Criticism died down in 2018 when Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology published reports on Cao Cao’s tomb and the National Cultural Heritage Administration announced that the excavation was conducted to national standards. A park and museum now stand at the site.  

But the controversy shook the world of archaeology, where many were surprised at how professional archaeologists struggled to guide or influence public opinion about their field of expertise.  

“Archaeologists realized that it was about time to face the public, or they would be stuck in a passive position,” Xi Muliang, a scholar at Peking University’s School of Archaeology and Museology, told NewsChina.  

Archaeology has struggled with its public image in China since the 1990s, when many considered the field no more than “sanctioned grave robbery.” As Chinese cities launched massive infrastructure projects at that time, many local governments saw cultural relic protection and archaeological surveys as obstacles to their plans. The third National Cultural Relics Census conducted between 2007 and 2011 revealed that 44,000 registered immovable cultural relics had disappeared from their sites due to natural disasters, poor protection and theft. Also, 8.43 percent of those that remained were in “poor condition,” while 17.77 percent were in “relatively poor condition.”  

Although archaeologists urgently needed to increase awareness of cultural relic protection, they had few available channels to address the growing crisis. “No matter how it was interpreted, public archaeology at the time had a very clear purpose: to prevent archaeology from being marginalized and stigmatized and cultural relics from being destroyed,” Xi said.  

Deeper Efforts 
Archaeology authorities took the lead in public relations. Shanxi Archaeology Institute established an office in February 2009 to organize public events and training for volunteers. It was renamed the “public archaeology department” in 2014.  

“Prior to 2000, some archaeologists didn’t understand why we needed public outreach and argued that archaeology should be academic. But now, public archaeology is an acknowledged part of our work,” Zheng Yuan, the institute’s deputy director, told NewsChina.  

Top-down policies also brought about changes, Zheng said. In February 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Capital Museum in Beijing, where he called on archaeologists to “let cultural relics speak and share the wisdom of history with people.” The same year, the China Archaeology Association set up a guidance committee to help promote archaeological knowledge and encourage the public to participate in related activities.  

“In the past, publishing a research report generally marked the end of an archaeology project, but now it’s normal for us to open excavation sites to the public to let people see the relics close up, otherwise it feels like we haven’t finished our work,” Zheng said.  

Shanxi Archaeology Institute also started a public archaeology team. Zheng said they have been recruiting voluntary archaeologists since 2010 and peaked at 800 members. Coming from different professions and backgrounds, volunteers started by participating in work meetings and press conferences, and joined in field work.  

“One of the volunteers went on to apply for a master’s in archaeology after he finished here,” Zheng said.  

Last November, Anyang Cultural Heritage Bureau in Henan recruited volunteers to participate in excavations and other archaeological work with the Yin Ruins Museum which oversees the site of the ancient Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) capital.  

According to the bureau, they received several hundred applications, many from people in other industries.  

“It not only increased the public’s awareness of archaeology, but also helped them directly experience the stringent and scientific attitude that professional archaeologists have toward their work,” volunteer Ma Jingyu told newspaper the Henan Daily.  

In June, Central China Television (CCTV) livestreamed new excavations at the Bronze Age Sanxingdui ruins in Guanghan, Sichuan Province, an important site for the ancient Shu state.  

The livestreams reportedly saw 1.7 billion views and stirred public discussions not only about the discoveries but also the archaeologists and the technologies they used. “As an archaeologist, I was moved when I realized that archaeology, which never used to be a part of people’s lives, gets so much attention today,” Bilibili user “Li Sanyi” who identified himself as an archaeologist, commented on one video.  

Performers from the Spring Festival Gala for Henan Television take photos in a subway station in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, March 18, 2021

Deeper Influence
As archaeology gains traction with the public, especially among young people, some critics worry the attention will have negative effects. Antique appraisal TV shows have been criticized for misleading the public to care more about the monetary value of a cultural relic than its cultural and historical value. On Quora-like site Zhihu, one respondent to the question “Is it really necessary to let the public participate in archaeological excavations?” called it a “waste of public funds.”  

“Public archaeology doesn’t aim to turn the public into archaeologists or simply organize them to do excavations on site. What if they end up destroying cultural relics?” Liu Qingzhu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and dean of the history department at Zhengzhou University, said in a 2020 interview with Culture & Tourism, an outlet under the China Cultural Media Group.  

“The focus of public archaeology is to share archaeological knowledge, enable the public to learn more about our civilization and call on them to help protect cultural relics alongside archaeologists,” he added. 
Public outreach should take a variety of forms, especially those that appeal to young people. For example, CCTV program National Treasure, which features three collections at different museums per episode, is rated 9.3/10 on Douban, China’s leading media ratings website. First aired in February 2017, the program invites celebrities to portray historical figures while introducing famous cultural relics. It was a immediate hit among young demographics, with many education-focused bloggers and social media accounts praising it as one of the best shows on Chinese history and traditional culture.  

The Palace Museum in Beijing (also known as The Forbidden City) developed a product line of souvenirs inspired by items in their collections that include jewelry, stationery and cosmetics. Among their best-sellers is a calendar featuring the museum’s most well-known relics. According to Shan Jixiang, the museum’s former curator, the souvenirs generated 1.5 billion yuan (US$231.2m) in revenue in 2017.  

During a lecture at Tsinghua University in October 2020, Wang Xudong, the Palace Museum’s current curator, said they are constantly seeking to develop more innovative products to generate public interest. “We should not keep duplicating a cultural relic without innovating,” he said. “We have to think about how to add cultural value to these artifacts and satisfy society’s growing demand for cultural relics,” he added.  

“We have to explore all the elements hidden in the cultural relics that are easy to understand and find ways to connect them with people’s everyday lives. When people understand those things they’ll be motivated and interested to go to museums, maximizing the historical, scientific and artistic value of these cultural relics,” Henan Museum director Ma Xiaolin told NewsChina. 
According to Peking University scholar Xi Muliang, public archaeology has had an impact on archaeologists and their work.  

“The public’s interpretations and views on archaeology are always of great interest to archaeologists and lead them to view things from different angles,” he told NewsChina.  

Xi took the Sanxingdui site as an example. While archaeologists focused on a royal plate with dragon patterns, the public turned its attention to a clay figurine of a pig that resembled a character from the popular mobile game Angry Birds.  

“This made us think we should care about things beyond emperors and royal palaces. The public is providing us with new ways to look at things,” he said.