A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The surprises of China’s largest sculpture cache
Archaeologists work at a burial pit on the outskirts of the
ancient city of Yecheng containing almost 3,000 Buddha
sculptures that date to between 1,100 and 1,600 years ago.
Though similar pits have been found elsewhere in China, this
is the largest of its kind yet discovered. (Courtesy Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)
Early this year, on the outskirts of Beiwuzhuang
village in northern China’s Hebei Province,
someone started dredging a riverbed. It’s
not an unusual occurrence in China, a land of
fast development and silted channels. But when
local archaeologists heard about this particular
effort, they came running. “In 2004, our team had discovered
a few fragments of Buddhist statues in the riverbed,” says He
Liqun, a member of the archaeological team working there.
“So ever since, this had been an area of concern.”
China’s archaeological regulations tend to favor protection
over excavation, so the archaeologists had let the riverbank
be in 2004. But the dredging made excavation a priority, so
this time the team arrived ready to begin exploratory drilling.
In January 2012, they hit what He calls a “burial pit”—a
roughly dug hole in the ground, five feet deep and 11 feet
wide. The burial pit contained no coffins or bones, but rather
the largest cache of Buddhist sculptures ever discovered in
China. Almost 3,000 (2,895, to be exact) were excavated
at the site—some of white marble, others of limestone or
ceramic—covering more than 500 years, from the Northern
Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386–534/35) into the Tang Dynasty (A.D.
618–907). The sculptures offer archaeologists a glimpse into
the place of religion in ancient China and into the politics
and history of one of its most influential cities.
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Lauren Hilgers is a freelance writer based in Shanghai.