Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Race Against Time Volume 49 Number 6, November/December 1996
by Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, Joan Lebold Cohen, and Lawrence R. Sullivan

[image]Boatmen navigate Wu Gorge, whose waters will rise some 300 feet following construction of the Three Gorges Dam. (Jim Williams) [LARGER IMAGE, 19K]

The Three Gorges Dam, now being built on the middle reaches of China's Yangtze River, is the largest and most expensive hydroelectric project ever undertaken. Begun in 1994, the dam will be a massive structure 1.2 miles wide and 607 feet high, creating a reservoir 370 miles long (60 miles longer than Lake Nasser behind Egypt's Aswan Dam). The project's 40,000 workers will need at least 13 more years to finish the dam, at a cost estimated by sources both inside and outside the Chinese government at between $14 and $75 billion. Thirteen cities, 140 towns, more than 300 villages, and 1,600 factories will be submerged. Nearly 1.5 million people will be relocated, the largest population resettlement ever undertaken for a civil-engineering project. The dam will flood the Qutang, Wu, and Xiling gorges and the Yangtze River Valley from Yichang in the east to Chongqing in the west. When completed, it will allow vessels up to 10,000 tons to travel 1,500 miles inland to Chongqing, opening up markets in the Yangtze watershed, where some 380 million people live.

Chinese government officials say the dam will protect millions of people from Yangtze floodwaters and provide electricity to one of the country's most underdeveloped regions. It will also destroy evidence of human habitation in the valley dating as early as the Palaeolithic. A group of 50 Chinese intellectuals, including prominent archaeologists and former government officials, recently petitioned Jiang Zemin, China's president, to speed the distribution of the $37.5 million earmarked for the rescue of archaeological sites threatened by the dam's construction. So far this money has not materialized, and salvage excavations have ground to a halt. Dam engineers have begun flooding the Yangtze Valley, forcing residents to move. Zhongbaodao, a Neolithic site near Yichang, is already under water. Next year some 130 sites in Xiling Gorge, many dating as far back as the Neolithic, will be inundated. While Chinese archaeologists are obliged to help in the salvage operation, no team has been assembled to work exclusively on the project.

Scattered salvage excavations have revealed that the Yangtze River Valley rivals the Yellow River Valley 300 miles to the north in its importance to the study of the origins of the Chinese people. Archaeologists have traditionally identified the northern valley as the cradle of Chinese civilization. Only in the past 15 years has the Yangtze region been identified as an early and important cultural center. Ceramics recently found at Neolithic sites in the Three Gorges area are more varied in shape, color, and decoration than those produced at the same time in the north. Evidence of a heretofore unknown bronze-working tradition that may be linked to an obscure people called the Ba (ca. 2000-220 B.C.) has been discovered in eastern Sichuan. Known for its boat-shaped coffins and distinctive weaponry, the Ba culture is now thought to be more widespread, more influential, and more than 1,000 years older than previously believed. The Ba appear to have settled the middle Yangtze from west of Yichang to Yibin, some 140 miles west of Chongqing. A third-century B.C. Ba royal cemetery at Xiaotianxi has yielded bronze weaponry indicating wealth, power, and extraordinary artistic imagination. Yu Weichao, director of the National History Museum of China and head of the project's salvage excavation team, says "the sites in this area are too valuable to be lost.... We must remember that protecting cultural relics enhances everyone's understanding of ancient cultures."

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America