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Old bones unearthed at embassy in China

BEIJING -- Embassies often are the sites of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, secret communications and even, perhaps, skeletons in the closet.

But the U.S. Embassy in Beijing found its skeleton in the back yard -- and called in the historical preservationists rather than police.In a city as ancient as Beijing, inhabited for at least 3,200 years, it seems you only have to put spade to soil to uncover antiquities.

So, when construction workers, digging inside the embassy compound, smashed a shovel into a human skull buried about 5 feet underground on Feb. 26, embassy officials were bemused but not surprised.

"We were afraid it might even be a Marine," quipped Alan Evers, the construction manager, pointing to a nearby building that houses Marine guards.

The charge d'affaires, Gene Martin, was called. He called China's Foreign Ministry, which handles diplomatic affairs. It called the archaeologists.

Meanwhile, construction was halted and yellow tape blocked off the grave site.

The skeleton, dubbed "San Ban Man" because it was discovered in the embassy's "San Ban," or No. 3, compound, was lying in yellowish clay in what had been a garden.

Construction workers claimed not to have been troubled by the discovery. "The teeth were very, very white," said a Chinese laborer, smiling as he shoveled yellow clay from roughly below where the skeleton was found.

For the team at the Beijing Culture and Heritage Preservation Bureau, the embassy's discovery was routine.

They pulled out their tiny brushes and went to work. What they found was an intact grave site that included a rare green-glazed vase, a bit of coffin and some coins minted in the era of Emperor Kangxi, who reigned from 1661 to 1722. The gray gravestone was blank, the Chinese characters worn away with time.

Tests showed the skeleton was about 340 years old, officials said. Its discovery in a relatively shallow grave, and the small number of relics buried along with the body for the trip to the underworld indicated their owner, a woman aged 30 to 45, was not very wealthy.

"According to the custom of the day, they should have put more things in the grave for her to eat and so on," said Wang Qinglin, one of the archaeologists who studied the bones.

In past centuries, the area was outside Beijing's city walls and was probably rural. "We think it was probably a cemetery, but it's hard to say given all the construction since then," Wang said.

Today, the neighborhood is one of several in Beijing housing embassies from all over the world. The creamy yellow Irish Embassy and the Bulgarian Embassy are next door. Across the ginkgo-lined street are the Cubans, Vietnamese, Mongolians and Egyptians. A block away is an elegant park housing the ancient Temple to the Sun. Down the street is the city's most popular tourist bazaar, the "Silk Market."

The skeleton was the latest surprise in an eventful year for the embassy.

Last May, angry crowds protesting the bombing of China's mission in Yugoslavia lobbed chunks of concrete and jars of ink over its fence, shattering its tall windows and staining its brown stucco walls.

After months of work, the damage was repaired and by Christmas, the entrance to the embassy blazed with sparkling lights.