Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 10:48
Major archeological discovery surprises experts
By Timothy Chui in Hong Kong

Major archeological discovery surprises experts
Members of the Antiquities Advisory Board conduct a site visit to an ancient square-shaped well, dating back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The construction site is at To Kwa Wan Station on the Sha Tin to Central Link. (Provided to China Daily)

Archeologists and the MTR Corporation (MTRC) have just under half a year to decide what to do with what has been called one of Hong Kong’s most important archeological finds in decades.

Roughly 120 people have been working at a 14,500 square meter pit in Kai Tak since November 2012.

It began as a simple environmental impact assessment but grew as excavators found a trove of historical artifacts stretching back hundreds of years.

A race to uncover and catalog the site and its treasures is on as the study is set to end by the third quarter of this year. What has yet to be determined is what to do with several immovable objects in the way of a multibillion-dollar railway project.

Hong Kong Archeology Society Chairman Steven Ng calls it a “rescue excavation” and researchers and planners are still coming to grips with their findings. Ng says the society is still trying to get a full picture of the discovery.

What they found below the foundation remains of 1920s housing developments, coastal walls and the former Kai Tak airport were a series of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to Republic of China (1912-1949) irrigation ditches, building outlines ponds, pits and wells.

Digging further into time, they found older structural features, wells, kilns and pits dating back to the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1272-1368) dynasties.

Several burial sites were found, with a few orderly, most irregular, shallow graves with few adornments. “It is reasonable to speculate that they were all hastily buried,” an interim report read.

The yield so far is more than 1,000 boxes of some 3,700 objects. Ceramic shards from pots made in Fujian and Zhejiang, more than 500 coins made between 1004 to 1926, bits of metal and wood imply Sacred Hill was a bustling scene of village life.

During China’s long history, Hong Kong was not famous for much until contact with the West — with the exception of two fugitive Song emperors. Antiquities Advisory Board Chairman Andrew Lam calls the findings “definitely among the most important archaeological discoveries in Hong Kong in recent years”.

At the center of the finds is a square shaped Song Dynasty well walled with granite, seemingly built in urgency. University of Hong Kong Department of Real Estate and Construction Poon Sun-wah said the well was not high-quality workmanship.

Semi-retired Professor of Archeology William Meacham said the preliminary findings were indicative of rural village life.

“Compared to Song Dynasty finds on the mainland this one doesn’t really stand out. For Hong Kong however, this is one of the biggest finds in terms of the site’s size,” he told China Daily.

While what has been produced from the Kai Tak site doesn’t come close to rivaling Han Dynasty tombs, neolithic sites and bronze age rock carvings found elsewhere in the city, it was still a source of valuable insight into the late Song and early Yuan Dynasties, he said.

The two-year dig was more than enough time to catalog the find, Meacham, a 40-year veteran of Chinese archaeology said.

“It’s definitely not indicative of a wealthy landowner and lacks any imperial characteristics,” he said. But he added that there still could be bigger finds on the site’s fringes.

Speculation of the MTR’s latest archeological find has whipped up theories that the site could in some way be related to nearby Sacred Hill and the legend of two Song Dynasty emperors who sought refuge there.

Sacred Hill or Sung Wong Toi was named for an easily defended seashore hill with sharp bluffs into the water. Oral and written histories have it as the place where adolescent Sung Dynasty emperors Zhao Shi and Zhao Bing sought shelter from a marauding Mongolian army in the late 1200s. Locals etched the words “Sung Wong Toi” on a rock outcropping to commemorate the historic 1277 to 1279 stays.

Sacred Hill itself is no more. It was leveled for turf and the rock outcrop blasted by Japanese occupiers to enlarge Kai Tak Airport during the Second World War. Luckily, the etching survived, a boulder cut out and relocated just west of its former site at Sung Wong Tai Garden.

If the hasty and meager burials implied a less than imperial end for the emperors, history allows us to infer the Sung Dynasty’s emperors’ stay was one of fearful anticipation, isolation and despair.

The unconfirmed tale tells of the emperor Zhaos fleeing south, pursued by the Mongols who founded the Yuan Dynasty. The emperors took refuge at Sacred Hill with their weary entourage. Zhao Shi died of illness while Zhao Bing met his end on the shoulders of a retainer, Lu Xiufu, who jumped off a cliff after news of defeat from the Song’s last stand at the battle of Yamen where the Yuan navy defeated a Song navy 10 times its size in 1279.

“Every time there is a mass of coins found in Hong Kong from the Song Dynasty, people try to use it as evidence of the Song emperor story, which there is yet to be a concrete proof,” Meacham said.

“The fact is they haven’t turned up anything with imperial characteristics. Documents, an imperial seal or jade would definitely be supportive but the fact is the site as it is hasn’t yielded anything to denote rank or wealth,” he said.

An MTRC spokeswoman said the corporation was working closely with the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO). Steps are being taken so nearby work does not affect the study after extending a previous deadline for the archeological study to the third quarter of this year.

“We do have a time line and a schedule for the Sha Tin to Central Link to be finished,” she said, adding any changes to the link’s routing would lead to delays. She said adjoining sections had already broken ground and planning. Preparatory work up to this point was four years in the making before finally approved in 2012.

The clock is ticking on whether to preserve the site and its artifacts, versus timely delivery of the HK$79.8 billion link.

The AMO has suggested a similar solution for the Song Dynasty wells as the site’s name-sake boulder etchings, reconstructing the well structuring in the Sung Wong Toi Garden.

“In terms of preservation, preserving key points such as the well in-situ could be explored, but when it comes down to it everything ends up about cost and they will have to weigh the site’s importance as a viewpoint into past village life versus how much the rail project is costing,” Meacham said.