Opinion: Celebrating everyday monuments - not just kings and emperors



April 18 is the International Day for Monuments and Sites. We usually associate this day with the Great Pyramids of Giza, The Terracotta Warriors in Xian or Temples of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán. However, it is important to remember that some of archaeology's greatest discoveries can come from much more “humble” sites - like the Tuchengzi in Liaoning Province.

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This site sits on a terrace overlooking a small river. Behind it stand some mountains too small to even have names. The site was first occupied during the Bronze Age, roughly 4,000 years ago, and for a period during the Warring States (475–221 BCE). The site is a couple of hundred meters across and to date there are no fancy tombs, bronzes or jades that have been recovered from the site. The soil itself is a dull brown color much like the pottery. Tuchengzi is like thousands of other documented sites in Northeast China.

A moderately sized Bronze Age village. If this site is so ordinary, why even mention it? Why excavate it? Why not destroy it and build vacation homes in its place? This site is certainly ordinary but that doesn't mean that it is not important.

Archaeology is not about what you find. It is about what you find out. Sites like Tuchengzi can be found all over the world and archaeologists are spending a great deal of blood, sweat and tears excavating and preserving these sites. Ancient villages reveal to us how the everyday lives of people and communities intersect with economy, ideology and politics. How did groups of people manage the stresses and pressures of carving out an existence? Did they form a shared ideology to reinforce community relationships? How did groups of people learn to cooperate, prosper and grow? These questions and the answers to them are relevant no matter what part of the world you are in and call attention to the commonality of our past.

View of ancient incas town of Machu Picchu, Peru./VCG Photo‍

At Tuchengzi, this picture is being fleshed out. We have evidence to suggest a small network of sites which protected the site from locations atop the no-named mountains as well as an economic network providing millet to the larger sites. A small craft economy produced pottery to the families living at the site to be used as containers for water as well as cooking during cold Liaoning winters. These, and stories like this, are the stories of humanity, as it pulled itself out of the muck and into what we see today.

Oddly enough, these stories are much like our own. These are stories of how we, as members of humanity, live our lives. We cannot find these stories in the annals of history or by digging a royal palace. We learn about the people of the past by excavating the ancient houses of small communities all over the world.

Two books which make this point, for example, are the Pithouses of Keatley Creek and the Mesoamerican Village. In their own way, the two authors turn us away from the stories of elaborate tombs and impressive monuments to focus on the dynamics of village life and social change. Unfortunately, this type of research still remains a literal foreign concept.

China is covered in archaeology. It is difficult to dig a hole anywhere in the country without finding something from the past. Much of these material are the remains of villages just waiting to tell their stories. As China rapidly develops, it is important to remember that our past is not just the events of kings and emperors. While their homes and tombs may be impressive, our past is the story of everyday people living in communities trying to make a better life for their families and neighbors.

Learning about the local archaeology, visiting a small museum and opening your gaze to the importance of these small sites will open your eyes to what you share with the people of the past. Thinking in this way brings us closer to the human story of us all.