Digging deep into the scarlet earth along the banks of the Yangtze River, China's archaeologists are in a race against time to save the relics of nearly 8,000 years of Chinese history that will otherwise be trapped forever beneath a lake created by the world's largest dam.
The project, the biggest such expedition ever conducted in China, is expected to bring together thousands of archaeologists who will try to excavate more than 300 square miles of the river bank before it is covered by the new superdam's reservoir.The dimensions of the archaeological effort are matched only by those of the dam itself. The Three Gorges Dam, named for the mist-shrouded rock formations along the Yangtze that are among the most cherished natural wonders in China, is expected to provide electricity equal to 10 nuclear power plants, and it should forever end the threat of flooding in densely populated areas downstream.
But beyond a price tag of at least $20 billion, the dam will exact a terrible cost, including the forced relocation of more than 1 million Chinese whose homes will be washed out by the river, and the destruction of areas of the Yangtze river bank considered a cradle of Chinese civilization. Even the Three Gorges themselves will be destroyed as a result of the dam.
"I feel the pressure," said Yao Ying Qin, director of the national archaeological museum in Yichang. "It is like my shoulders have been weighted down from all the pressure."
Yao is overseeing the effort to save the relics along the Yangtze, a project that will be carried out in stages into the early part of the next century, with the archaeologists struggling to stay ahead of the construction teams that are building the dam. Construction began last year and is expected to last until 2013.
"If I fail to do good work on the preservation of these relics, we will have dishonored our ancestors," he said somberly.
Chinese archaeologists say the only comparable project of modern times was carried out in the 1960s in Egypt, when the Nile was dammed at Aswan, flooding out river banks that held the relics of thousands of years of Egyptian civilization.
With the assistance of an international campaign led by the United Nations, the Egyptians transported the 3,000-year-old stone temples built by Ramses II at Abu Simbel to a new home before the monuments could be buried by a lake that formed behind the dam.
The Chinese think that they will need an international effort at least as large to save the relics along the Yangtze.
The initial budget for the project is nearly $180 million. Government archaeologists say they hope that the United Nations and foreign researchers will join them in carrying out the excavations - and paying for them.
Archaeologists working from the museum at Yichang, the riverside city in central China where the dam construction teams are based, began intensive work along the river several years ago. And they say the discoveries so far have cemented the theory that the Yangtze is as much the birthplace of Chinese culture as the Yellow River basin, long assumed to be the sole cradle of Chinese civilization.
"What we have already discovered along the Yangtze provides the unwritten historical record of China," said Yao, the museum director, leading visitors to a room in the museum where he displays the recent discoveries from Zhong-baodao, a village near Yichang.
In 200 ancient tombs and other sites in the area around Zhong-baodao, archaeologists have uncovered thousands of items of pottery, porcelain and stoneware dating back nearly 7,000 years ago and possibly beyond.
The stone objects included well-polished tools, axes and chisels. A kiln dating back 3,000 years to the Shang Dynasty was unearthed. At almost every site, the archaeologists found jade, often elaborately carved, that had been used for rings, bracelets and necklaces.
"Do you see the workmanship, the artistry?" Yao asked excitedly, cradling a fragile reddish-gray pot intricately designed with a pattern of feather-like whirls.
"This dates from 5,000 years ago. As you can see, our ancestors were very skillful artisans."