October 16, 2023
BEIJING – A sweeping timeline is stamped on the ground at the entrance of the Chinese Archaeological Museum, which opened to the public last month. It starts with Lufengpithecus lufengensis, ancient apes dating back about 8 million years, through ancient dynasties and up to the new era, and marks significant moments in time and major historical events in China’s history.
The timeline looks like a red carpet that leads to the inner sanctum of the museum. Visitors will be amazed by the precious cultural relics on show, which bear witness to the evolution of Chinese civilization. Affiliated with the Chinese Academy of History, the museum is the only one of its kind in the country.
It serves as a kind of historical and cultural salon on Beijing’s Central Axis, a new national cultural landmark that displays more than 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, says Li Guoqiang, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of History.
It encompasses exhibitions, collections, academic research and education, and has a permanent 7,000-square-meter exhibition hall.
The exhibition area is divided into five sections based on changes to social formation, and focuses on political, economic, cultural and social life, as well as on exchanges between China and other countries, from the Paleolithic period until today.
Visitors can see important ancient cultural relics, particularly from the early stage of civilization, including a Neolithic pottery sculpture of a human face that reflects Yangshao Culture, and is dated to between 4,700 and 7,000 years ago.
Also on display is a turquoise-inlaid bronze plaque with a beast-mask design that offers a glimpse into Henan province’s Erlitou site, which dates back over 3,500 years. It is widely considered to be the capital of the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century-16th century BC), the first central dynasty recorded in Chinese history.
There is also a turquoise mosaic dragon from Erlitou that is 70 centimeters long and is made of more than 2,000 small pieces of green turquoise of varying shapes.
“The dragon’s body is adorned with copper bells, and contains a jade clapper inside. The body is gracefully curved, and the image is vivid and lifelike,” says Gong Wen, the archaeological museum’s director.
“The sheer scale of craftsmanship, precision, and the size of this dragon-shaped artifact make it truly rare among early Chinese artifacts,” Gong says.
Other highlights include the remains of horses and a chariot from the Yinxu Ruins from the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC), and bronzeware from the same period.
“All the exquisite cultural relics on display came primarily from our frontline archaeological excavations,” Gong says.
From the prehistoric era all the way through to social development, the Chinese Archaeological Museum presents the development of a unified multiethnic nation in a panoramic manner, she adds.
Cross-cultural exchanges along the ancient Silk Road make up another major section of the exhibition.
The new facility is themed on ancient China and the fusion of civilization, and houses immersive, warehouse-style displays, Gong says.
Visitors are able to get visual, audio and tactile experiences of many of the objects on display.
“In the exhibition halls, the museum also attempts to engage visitors through means such as video presentations, multimedia interactions, scene simulations, OLED transparent displays and visual 3D,” Gong says.
For instance, in the Stone Age exhibition section, visitors can immerse themselves in interactive videos simulating the process of making tools.
Near the oracle bone display, a vicarious experience of the divination process of the people of the Shang Dynasty is presented through multimedia devices, which adds extra excitement.
The display of archaeological findings from the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907) from Henan province’s Luoyang city includes a re-creation of a historical road outside an ancient city gate, complete with wheel ruts and camel footprints.
Electronic displays and 3D technology enable visitors to zoom in on small and delicate details and virtually turn artifacts around with their hands.
“These methods help visitors connect emotionally with Chinese civilization, strengthening cultural confidence, enhancing national pride, and solidifying the determination to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Gong says.
The dense warehouse-style display cabinets and racks in the exhibition hall that complement the multi-angle presentation of independent cabinets are another distinctive feature at the museum.
The warehouse-style display shows the characteristics of archaeology as a discipline, she says.
“Archaeological research often involves the comprehensive study of a group of remains and artifacts distributed within a specific area over a certain period of time, which are characterized by their common features,” Gong explains.
“This means that they should be studied according to the cultural context of archaeology, with a focus on the series and types of remains and artifacts, rather than by isolating and appreciating individual objects,” she adds.
Consequently, the displays at the Chinese Archaeological Museum don’t highlight isolated artifacts. Instead, they fully consider the cultural context of archaeology and archaeological sites, striving to achieve an organic integration of artifacts and grouped objects, accompanied by auxiliary layouts through diagrams and explanatory illustrations.
“This approach allows for a comprehensive archaeological interpretation of the entire spectrum of social production techniques, aesthetic preferences, religious beliefs, social organization, values, cultural traditions, and their formation and development,” Gong says.
Cheng Xueyang, a history student from the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, felt lucky to be able to visit the museum on its opening day on Sept 15.
“The visit is a good complement to my experience,” Cheng says.
Cheng adds that she was excited to see some of the objects, which she had only seen in textbooks before.
“All the abstract nouns from the books become independent objects here, vividly emerging before your eyes,” she says.
Zhang Jinyang, a sophomore student from Beijing, had his eyes set on seeing the turquoise mosaic dragon from Erlitou during his recent visit.
“I’ve been looking forward to seeing its true appearance,” Zhang says, adding that words didn’t do justice to its beauty.
He says he felt the exhibition was very well done and vividly displayed the profundity and extent of Chinese history and culture.
“I also noticed innovative, interactive approaches, such as the way they make the text on the pottery jars appear on the display cabinets, which is very impressive,” he says.
According to Gong, the museum will continue to use advanced technology to build a bridge between archaeology and visitors, and vividly present Chinese civilization.
A foundation platform for an intelligent guided tour and explanation system will be created this year.
“Through big data analysis, we aim to provide personalized tour route recommendations to visitors, and indoor positioning technology will be combined to offer mobile-guided tours,” she says.
Digital technology will also be applied to some key artifacts, so 3D data will be integrated with historical information and textual and visual content to create multidimensional presentations to reveal the stories behind them.
“In the future, we will continue to explore the use of new technologies and methods, such as VR, AR, and data-driven approaches, at the museum,” Gong says. “Meanwhile, we will continue to experiment with various forms of display.”
To bridge the gap between the audience and the archaeological sites, the museum also plans to provide real-time updates on the progress of excavations, enabling visitors to virtually meet archaeologists working on-site via video calls. At the same time, archaeological experiences will be arranged to allow visitors to participate in activities, such as piecing together pottery shards and making rubbings, to enhance the overall experience.
The museum is open to the public from Wednesdays to Sundays, and focuses on receiving groups of history and archaeology professionals on Tuesdays. Visitors can reserve entry tickets three days in advance online.
“Through a variety of methods and channels, we aim to turn archaeological achievements into public knowledge, benefiting the people,” Gong says.