The Three Gorges Dam and the Preservation of Archaeological Sites

The Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze River in China’s Hubei Province is the largest hydroelectric project every constructed. Begun in 1994 and completed in 2009, the dam is a source of hydroelectric power, shipping locks, and flood control for the middle and lower Yangtze River. However, there were quite a few drawbacks of a project flooding an area of more than 600 square kilometers. As water levels rose, nearly 1.3 million people were forced to relocate. The effects of this displacement were devastating to the population and many Chines cultural sites and artifacts, as the places they had to leave behind have some of the oldest history in China.

The Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydroelectric project ever constructed, and flooded 632 square kilometers of land beyond the existing banks of the Yangtze River.

The Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydroelectric project ever constructed, and flooded 632 square kilometers of land beyond the existing banks of the Yangtze River.

Some of the above ground historic sites that were below the final water level have had to be preserved on site or moved. The Baiheliang Stone, the best preserved ancient hydrologic station in the world, has been saved through constructing an underwater museum around it. Shibaozhai, an ancient Buddhist temple built by the Ming emperor Wan Li, is now an island in the center of the new lake, surrounded by a concrete dike. Some structures are being moved altogether, such as Zheng Fei Temple, which was moved one brick at a time and reassembled at a higher elevation. However, much of the above ground archaeology is only left in data collected, as the sites themselves have disappeared beneath the water.

Zheng Fei Temple was moved to higher elevation to prevent it from being submerged

Zheng Fei Temple was moved to higher elevation to prevent it from being submerged

The Three Gorges region is the birthplace of Chinese civilization, but archaeology in the region has traced human habitation of the gorges back to the Paleolithic. In preparation for it to be submerged, over 1000 Chinese archaeologists descended on the region to do what preservation could be done in this culturally rich region before the water covered everything. Budgeting problems hindered efforts both with lack of funds and complications with distribution, but archaeologists have still investigated some 1087 sites throughout the valley, gaining information about habitation of the region as early as 2 million years ago, as well as for nearly every era of habitation since. However, countless more data has been lost to the rising water levels.

Looting, too, has been an enormous problem for the archaeological record as both professional scavengers and local farmers descended on sites throughout the gorge. Many of the sites found in the region were left without surveillance before they were able to be excavated or were submerged. Over the course of dam building, many artifacts from the Three Gorges area went up for sale through dubious channels, most notably a bronze spirit tree dating to the Han dynasty. Though these pieces have been saved from submersion, their context has been destroyed, causing the loss of valuable archaeological data.




Further Reading

More about the Ba people, who flourished in the Three Gorges area until the Warring States Period


More about history and legend in writing about the Three Gorges region

The Epic Battle Between Archaeologists and Looters

There is much controversy and misunderstanding in the public sphere over which practices make for sound archaeology and which make for looting. In reality, the difference between the two is very simple: the goal of an archaeologist is to learn about culture through objects that have been preserved through time, whereas the goal of a looter is to collect and profit from these objects. Looting is dangerous because looters are often extremely reckless in their dealings with artifacts; since they do not have the training required to deal with precariously preserved sites, they often end up destroying huge parts of a site’s historical record, even if by accident. Slack Farm provides just one example of what happens when looters demolish a site: once hailed as one of the last untouched and preserved Mississippian settlements, Slack Farm is now a wasteland of destroyed human and cultural remains. Its historical record is completely wiped out.

One problem that archaeologists face when attempting to prevent looting is that popular cultural representations of archaeology often integrate looting with the archaeological process, blurring—and in some cases completely eliminating—the distinction between the two. One example of this can be found in 1999 film The Mummy: the “archaeologists” in the movie all sign on with the goal of finding gold-encrusted Egyptian artifacts that can be sold for high prices. And yet, the movie is advertised as being about an “archaeological dig.”

Misrepresentations of archaeology are not only found in movies. Recently, a new television show was created that caused uproar in the archaeology community. Called “American Digger,” the show features an ex-wrestler who digs up artifacts using “state of the art technology”—in other words, power tools—and sells them for a profit. At least two Facebook pages have been created in protest of the show, but through this medium of debate, another problem has been revealed: that of the lack of respect for professional, trained archaeologists. Many people believe that if amateurs don’t dig up certain artifacts, they will remain uncovered forever and nobody will get to enjoy them. Others implore archaeologists to stop bothering amateurs that have adopted archaeology as a hobby; after all, everyone is entitled to have fun, right?

Unfortunately, these people are missing the point of archaeology, which is to study past cultures and wider cultural patterns that relate to current times. Once an artifact is brought out of the ground and out of its matrix, it can never be studied in context again; therefore, when amateur looters take artifacts, their historical value—and what could be very important information about the past—is lost forever.

Established archaeology organizations have regulations to keep valuable information from being lost. For example, the Societies of American and Historical Archaeology and the Register of Professional Archaeology all agree that pricing or bartering artifacts is unethical, since it takes away from the educational goals of the field. Additionally, all three organizations provide for the consideration of cultures that might lay some claim to the artifacts, promoting very careful and methodical excavation. Ultimately, all three organizations aim to spread knowledge about their findings in a timely fashion, and to make their data available to the public. Organizations like these hopefully make the goals of true archaeology more clear, and garner respect among those who seek information about—and not price estimates of—the past.