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Friday, June 2, 2017

Digging for dirt in Wangfujing

I’m not generally a fan of the Wangfujing and Sanlitun areas of Beijing, if the truth be known. They are both filled with foreigners – the fat types with their bottoms squeezed into chequered trousers … I’m sure you know what I mean. And I didn’t move halfway across the world just to spend time with them.

But I recently had cause to be in the Wangfujing area when, on leaving the subway station, I found myself being propelled into the Oriental Plaza mall. And there, as I was making my way towards the escalators, I glanced to my right to see a museum I had never heard of.

The Wangfujing Paleolithic Museum seemed somewhat at odds with this shoppers’ paradise or hell-hole (depending on your point of view). I mean, how many people intent on going on a shopping spree decide on the whim of the moment to part with yet more of their hard-earned kwai to learn about palaeontology? I mean… who’s kidding whom?

However your favourite blogger was not intent on a shopping spree, and (as my regular blog fans can testify) anything with the word ‘museum’ included in its title is like a siren call to me. OMG… will I never learn?

OK, I have also to admit to being a total numbskull when it comes to archaeology and viewing fragments of bones and cooking pots. So I parted with a massive (as it turned out) 10RMB and walked into the museum.

It turns out that the museum is situated on a Paleolithic Site dating back over 20,000 years, and which was discovered in December 1996 during the construction of the Plaza, which had to stop work for eight months while excavations were carried out. Archaeologists collected over 2,000 relics from 11-12 metres below present ground level, including artificial stonework, and a large quantity of animal bones such as ox, deer, rabbits, ostrich and fish.

In 2001, the museum was presented by Li Jiacheng, the original investor, to the local Dongcheng municipality, though reading some of the comments on old web sites, it appears it was underwhelming in the extreme.

By October 2016 the museum had undergone refurbishment and now, according to the blurb, includes four sections: image display, physical display, scenario reduction and popular science recreation (well, that’s what it says!). “This discovery...confirms that the Wangfujing area in Beijing is a suitable home for human beings,” it adds with a flourish.

I’m intrigued and turn the corner into a dimply lit room which has display cabinets made out of plastic tree trunks.

Inside one of the first cabinets is a petri dish containing samples of soil collected from the site in 1996. Yes, really! Wow!

Following on closely behind are “broken bones found on first time” and a piece of old charcoal. Simply amazing!

Hurrying on, lest I overdose on … whatever it is one overdoses on when faced with a scattering of old bones, the next room has a number of tableaux of ancient people doing such amazing things as sharpening their stone implements…

… and (presumably) praying to the Gods for the well being of one of their comrades.

There’s an artist’s impression of these people out on the plains, while in front of it is a glass-covered floor through which one can peer down and see… yet more earth with some bits of bone placed lovingly on top. This 50 square metre patch of soil marks the exact spot of the original discovery. Exciting or what?

Onto another wall, a projector displays an animation of ancient people attacking and killing some poor defenceless animal, all superimposed on another landscape of half-desert-half-pasture grasslands, mountains and a river which, it turns out, is the secondary branch of the ancient Yong Ding River.

Unfortunately, all the notices are in Chinese, and I have to admit shamefacedly that I can’t quite raise the enthusiasm to get my iPhone out of my pocket with its wonderful app that turns Chinese characters into what Google does its best to pass off as the Queen’s own vernacular.

Next up, a short corridor with a video wall on either side; but the moving panels simply read “Demo” with nothing to indicate what might be here in days/weeks/months to come.

But what’s this? We aren’t done yet! A small room off to the right tempts one with another notice – this time translated into English.

On the left and far walls are more notices (in Chinese) presumably explaining about technology used in archaeology.

For instance, there’s text and photographs detailing (I assume) what a well-dressed mummy looks like – though where this might be I’m afraid I cannot tell you.

I turn to the cabinets lining the right hand wall. It appears that their contents have all been purloined and I am left admiring instead the intensity of their red backdrops.

And that, my blog fans, is it. There is plenty of room for expansion at a later date; but as this sign makes clear, that’s all one is allowed to see for now.

What’s the Chinese for ‘can I have my 10 RMB refunded’?

Now that I have clearly whetted your appetite, if you cannot resist the temptation to rush off and visit this museum, take Line 1 to Wangfujing, take exit B and follow the signs into Oriental Plaza. The museum is on the third floor below ground level.