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It’s a golden age for Chinese archaeology — and the West is ignoring it

The lavish coverage of Egyptian discoveries relative to equally impressive Chinese finds reveals cultural bias.

Visitors look at a bronze mask unearthed from the Sanxingdui ruins at the National Museum of China in Beijing on March 26. (Hou Yu/China News Service/Getty Images)

Early in April, news broke that a 3,000-year-old “lost golden city” had been uncovered in Luxor, Egypt. Described in some articles as the most important find since the 1922 discovery of the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamen, the city of Aten, founded sometime between 1391 and 1353 B.C. — during Egypt’s 18th dynasty — appears to have been the largest settlement of that era.

The discovery was prominently covered by such outlets as ABC, NPR, The Washington Post and the New York Times, which noted that it comes as “Egyptology is having a big moment,” including not just the Aten find but also a Netflix documentary on sarcophagi in Saqqara and the buildup toward the long-awaited opening of a new Grand Egyptian Museum sometime this year.

But the lavish coverage of the Aten dig contrasted with the quiet reception in the United States, two weeks before, for a stunning set of discoveries, dating to about 1,200 B.C., at the site of Sanxingdui in China’s Sichuan province, near Chengdu. There archaeologists unearthed more than 500 objects, including a large gold mask, ivory, bronzes and remnants of silk, with more coming. The finds include whole tusks of Asian elephants — evidence of tribute brought to the Sanxingdui leaders from across the Sichuan region — and anthropomorphic bronze sculptures distinct from other contemporary East Asian bronzes (which were primarily ritual vessels and weapons).

New, highly meticulous archaeological work is providing unprecedented detail about this important site, a crucial window into an early state in East Asia. In China, media interest was intense, with multiday, prime-time coverage, including a live broadcast of the excavations. And the attention was warranted: Discoveries at Sanxingdui have totally transformed our understanding of how multiple, regionally distinct yet interrelated early cultures intertwined to produce what came to be understood as “Chinese” civilization.

Why do we pay so much more attention in the West to Egyptian archaeology than to Chinese archaeology — even though each is important to our understanding of human history? Egypt strikes a chord partly because of a kind of romanticism that is a legacy of colonialism: Stories of Western archaeologists competing to find tombs in the 19th century riveted Western Europeans, and today’s news coverage is a product of that imperialist tradition (even though the team that discovered Aten was Egyptian). And the focus on discoveries in the Mediterranean world reflects a persistent bias situating the United States as a lineal descendant, via Europe, of Mediterranean civilizations. Links among ancient Egypt and Greece and Rome — and Egypt’s appearance in the Christian Bible — allowed ancient Egypt to be appropriated and incorporated into European heritage and therefore into the story of American identity.

So we treat high-profile finds in Egyptian archaeology as a thread of the story of us, while we see Chinese archaeology as unrelated to American civilization. But that view is mistaken. Roughly 6 percent of Americans identify as ethnically Asian; that population is part of the American story and so, therefore, is the history of civilization in East Asia. And all ancient civilizations are part of human history and deserve to be studied and discussed on their own merits, not based on their geographical or supposed cultural connection to the Greece-Rome-Europe lineage that has long dominated the study of history in the West.

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Chinese archaeology has a very different history from Egyptian archaeology. It has largely been done by local, Chinese archaeologists, for one thing; it was not an imperialist project. It was also tied, early on, to nationalist claims of identity.

Chinese aristocrats collected and catalogued artifacts for centuries, but only in the early 20th century did people start to consider the excavation of artifacts a scientific endeavor. In its first stages, this “scientific archaeology” was partly influenced by stratigraphic approaches — that is, attention to the relative depth of artifacts as a means to establish antiquity — developed in the West. For example, a Swedish geologist turned archaeologist, Johan Gunnar Andersson, guided the project that led to the discovery of the “Peking Man” fossils, in the 1920s, at the site of Zhoukoudian. These remains are dated to between 200,000 and 700,000 years ago. Andersson also helped establish evidence of “prehistoric” culture, in the form of early painted ceramics at the Neolithic site of Yangshao, dating to circa 5,000 to 3,000 B.C.

Under Chinese scholars such as Li Ji, however, archaeology quickly became a discipline closely intertwined with traditional history and attached to a particular story. The dominant narrative has presented the origins of Chinese civilization as rooted in a singular source — the Three Dynasties (the Xia, Shang and Zhou), situated in the Central Plains of the Yellow River valley in Henan province, Shaanxi province and surrounding areas. These dynasties lasted from roughly 2,000 B.C. to the unification of China, in 221 B.C.

In the late 1920s, Chinese archaeologists began to unearth what turned out to be the last capital of the Shang Dynasty, a city dating to circa 1250 to 1050 B.C. near Anyang, in Henan province, in the heart of the Central Plains. These excavations revealed an urban center with a large population fed by millet agriculture and domesticated animals; there were palace foundations, massive royal tombs, evidence of large-scale human sacrifice and, perhaps most important, cattle and turtle bones used in divination rituals and inscribed with the earliest Chinese texts. The sophistication of the society that was revealed in these digs helped to solidify the belief that there was a single main source of subsequent Chinese culture: This was its epicenter.

A second major archaeological discovery contributing to this theory was the uncovering, in 1974 in Xi’an, of the terra-cotta soldiers of the tomb of the first emperor of Qin (who died in 210 B.C.). That leader was responsible for the violent unification and establishment of the first empire in China — one whose power center lay in the western part of the Central Plains. The location of those artifacts helped reinforce the notion that Chinese culture followed one line of succession, with roots in this region.

But finds at Sanxingdui and other sites since the 1980s have upended this monolithic notion of Chinese cultural development. The Sanxingdui discoveries, which are contemporary with the Shang remains, are located in Sichuan, hundreds of miles southwest of the Central Plains, and separated from them by the Qinling Mountains. The site is similarly spectacular. At Sanxingdui, we see monumental bronzes, palace foundations and remnants of public works like city walls — as well as the recently discovered ivory, anthropomorphic bronze sculptures and other objects. Crafts reveal the extensive use of gold, which was not much used in the Central Plains, and the agriculture is different, too: Rice, not millet, was the foundation of the cuisine.

These discoveries seem to make clear that Chinese civilization did not simply emerge from the Central Plains and grow to subsume and assimilate the cultures of surrounding regions. Instead, it is a result of a process whereby various traditions, people, languages and ethnicities have been woven together in a tapestry that is historically complex and multifaceted. Different versions of a similarly complex process of interconnections also occurred in the ancient Mediterranean and in the emergence of our United States.

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All historical studies that make familiar the seemingly strange lived experiences of people in different times and places have value. The monument-constructing civilization of ancient Egypt doesn’t have any closer relationship to the heterogeneous bases of American culture than do the cultures of various other regions, including Asia. To say so is not to denigrate the study of Egypt — obviously — but to widen the lens so that it encompasses more of the story. And there are real dangers in a version of history that accords ancient societies primacy based on their geographical and cultural ties to Europe. While it would be going considerably too far to say that the recent violence against Asian Americans has been caused by the media’s neglect of Chinese archaeology, the subtly pernicious assumption that the Chinese story is not “our” story contributes to the notion that Asian Americans are “others.”

American society has emerged from various geographical and cultural roots, and we should work harder to recognize and celebrate these diverse origins — including by paying more attention to the exciting discoveries in China.

This article has been updated.