Digging Into The Past: Archeology In Taiwan

Photo: Steven Crook

Taiwan’s extensive and colorful history (and prehistory) are brought to the surface at several archeological sites around the island. Many of the findings are on display at a handful of museums around Taiwan.

For those who study human history by digging up human remains and artifacts, Taiwan is both fertile ground and a frustrating place to work. The sheer number of construction and infrastructure projects means that archaeological discoveries are frequent. Whether these sites are adequately investigated is another matter.

Some sites are permitted to undergo salvage archaeology – sometimes called rescue archaeology – a term meaning survey and excavation work carried out ahead of construction. By necessity, it is hurried and often incomplete. One of the largest and most sustained rescue-archaeology operations ever conducted in Taiwan was led by Tsang Cheng-hwa at what is now the Southern Taiwan Science Park (STSP) in Tainan.

Grave found during a rescue-archaeology operation at what is now Southern Taiwan Science Park (STSP) in Tainan. Photo: Steven Crook

In a 2020 interview first published by National Chengchi University online journal Humanities Island, Tsang – currently director and distinguished professor at National Tsing Hua University’s Institute of Anthropology – recalled that what he expected would be a six-month assignment turned into 15 years of excavation and investigation.

In and around the STSP, Tsang and his team detected 82 sites of archaeological interest. Of those, they were able to perform salvage work at 34.

Bronze coins from China lie among human bones at a dig site in the STSP. Photo: Steven Crook

As Tsang and Li Kuang-ti, a research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of History and Philology, explain in their 2018 book Archaeological Heritage in the Tainan Science Park of Taiwan, the abundance of remains in the area was the result of topography and hydrology. The STSP is located on a plain that has been repeatedly flooded over the centuries by the Zengwen River. The rapid accumulation of sediment meant that traces of ancient human settlement were buried deeply. Those layers of soil protected them when later inhabitants plowed fields or built houses, but not when STSP tenants began digging foundations for wafer fabs and optoelectronics factories.

Time pressure forced Tsang and his colleagues to improvise and innovate. For instance, whenever human bones were uncovered, rather than being cleaned on site they were stabilized with silicone or fiberglass, then quickly transferred to a laboratory.

Use of the tried-and-tested flotation method led to a breakthrough in our understanding of how ancient Taiwanese obtained food. By bubbling water through soil taken from a dig, bone fragments and other relatively heavy matter are separated from lighter items such as seeds. This technique recovered 8,387 rice grains and 110,860 millet grains from a layer at one of the archeological sites in Tainan, Nanguanli East (南關里東), an area that radiocarbon dating indicates was inhabited 5,000 to 4,300 years before present (BP, a time scale used in archeology and other scientific disciplines to date objects or events).

According to a 2017 paper by Tsang, Li, and others, these are the earliest largescale seed remains so far found in Taiwan. The fact that grains of two domesticated millet species (broomcorn and foxtail) far outnumber those of wild millet “indicates relatively extensive cultivation of both rice and millet.” Moreover, the hypothesis that subsistence “was no longer limited to hunting and gathering” is supported by the retrieval of shell knives that were likely used for harvesting grain.

Nanguanli East also yielded a considerable amount of faunal remains, especially fish and dog bones. Cutting marks suggest canines were raised for food as well as for hunting. Numerous deer, boar, muntjac, hare, and crab fragments were also retrieved.

Archaeologists categorize the grains and faunal remains as remnants of the Dapenkeng Culture (大坌坑文化), which is both Taiwan’s earliest Neolithic (later Stone Age) culture and the first group of humans to leave behind traces in the island’s southwest. Yet the Dapenkeng Culture is not Taiwan’s oldest material culture – not by a long shot.  

Prehistoric traces

Baxian Caves (八仙洞), a popular tourist attraction on the east coast, may have been inhabited by humans more than 30,000 years ago. Samples retrieved by core drilling and sent to the U.S. for radiocarbon dating indicate that people were making fires there 25,000 to 20,000 BP.

The hunter-gatherer Changbin Culture (長濱文化), named for the Taitung township that includes Baxian Caves, established its foothold before rising sea levels separated Taiwan from the Asian mainland. The ancestors of those who dwelled in the caves likely followed migrating animals across the land bridge. 

The culture is thought to have endured until about 5,000 BP, yet no human remains associated with it have been found. In a 2016 Central News Agency report, Tsang was quoted as attributing this fact to Taiwan’s hot, humid climate, in which bacteria and fungi attack collagen protein, causing bones to quickly crumble.

There is not much for archaeology buffs to see at Baxian Caves or at Dapenkeng (大坌坑) in New Taipei City’s Bali District, where the first traces of the Dapenkeng Culture were unearthed in 1958. The Shihsanhang Museum of Archaeology – located less than three kilometers north of Dapenkeng – is a better place to visit.

The museum (closed Mondays; general admission NT$80 but free for some visitors) displays artifacts from and recreations of the Shihsanhang Culture (十三行文化), which thrived near here between 1,800 and 500 BP.

The discovery of the Shihsanhang site was unconventional. In 1955, when an ROC Air Force plane passed overhead at low altitude, the pilot noticed that his cockpit compass behaved erratically. Wondering if this indicated the presence of iron ore, he consulted a geologist.

Excavations between 1957 and 1988 unearthed evidence of iron-smelting in the form of ore, slag, and an almost-intact furnace made of stones. Taiwan’s Iron Age, these findings prove, was well underway prior to largescale Han Chinese settlement on the island.

Other finds at Shihsanhang include locally made hand-thrown ceramic items of notable hardness and ornamentation. Among the items its people are thought to have obtained by trading with outsiders are gold and silver ornaments, glass bracelets and earrings, and bronze knife handles. Archaeologists also learned something about the culture’s funerary practices: The dead were buried on their sides with their knees bent and their heads usually pointing southwest.

Creation of the National Museum of Prehistory (NMP) on the outskirts of Taitung City was inspired by the discovery in 1980 of 1,523 slate coffins, as well as jade knives and arrowheads and other treasures, during the construction of the new Taitung railway station in the early 1980s. These relics were left behind by the Beinan Culture (卑南文化, 2,300 to 5,200 BP), which may or may not have had a connection with the area’s Puyuma indigenous people (known in Chinese as the Beinan tribe). The museum recently reopened to the public after a two-year renovation.

For most people, the Museum of Archaeology (also known as the Tainan Branch of the NMP) is more accessible than its parent institution. Located in the middle of the STSP, the museum (closed on Mondays) displays some of the approximately 8 million artifacts and biofacts unearthed in the area. These include finds associated not just with the Dapenkeng Culture, but also the more recent Niuchouzi (牛稠子), Dahu (大湖), and Niaosong (蔦松) cultures. General admission is NT$80, but some visitors qualify for free or discounted entry.

Among the exhibits, especially interesting are earthenware urns that the Niuchouzi people used as coffins between 3,800 and 3,300 BP, and six-sided dice made of deer antler by Siraya people around the time of the Dutch occupation (1624 to 1662 CE). The museum’s best-known exhibit is an endearing human face made of pottery dated from 1,800 to 1,400 BP. Its bulbous nose and narrow eyes prove, Tsang and Li argue in their book, that the Niaosong people were capable of “a rather mature level of craftsmanship… which can especially be seen in the pairing of the three-dimensional effect achieved in the modeling of the facial features.”

This Niaosong Culture human face, at least 1,400 years old, is displayed in Tainan’s Museum of Archaeology. Photo: Steven Crook

Taichung’s rapid growth in recent years has resulted in the discovery of several sites of archaeological significance and a number of salvage efforts. Xiaolai Park in the city’s Xitun District has a re-creation of a dig that took place nearby at Huilai Archaeological Site (惠來遺址, 4,500 to 1,000 BP). The attraction, which is open around the clock and offers free admission, features replica human skeletons, stone tools, and pottery shards, but the surrounding information panels are mostly in Chinese.

A replica of a horse skeleton uncovered at an archaeological site near Madou in Tainan, displayed at Madou’s Daofeng Inland Sea Museum. Photo: Steven Crook

More than a thousand locations of archaeological interest are marked on the Geographic Information System of Archaeological Sites in Taiwan, an interactive map maintained by Academia Sinica. Some entries are accompanied by descriptions of significant finds. For instance, clicking on Niuchouzi (牛稠子) in Tainan’s Rende District – the place where the first remnants of the Niuchouzi Culture were found in 1938 – brings up photos of a polished jade pendant, a sharpened stone cutter, a stone net sinker, and fragments of rope-patterned pots.

So far this year, the archaeological news has been mixed. A March 16 environmental impact assessment meeting scaled back the proposed third-phase expansion of the STSP’s Tainan base in order to preserve both the Bajiaoliao Possible Archaeological Site (八角寮疑似考古遺址) and a habitat for the Taiwan ring-necked pheasant, a protected bird subspecies.

In May, when construction workers at National Ilan University in Yilan County found three human skeletons, copper bells and rings, glass beads, and other items thought to be connected to the Shihsanhang Culture, the school’s leaders were quick to assure the public that all archaeological finds would be properly investigated and preserved.

Prioritizing preservation

Shards of pottery discovered in Guanmiao. Photo: Steven Crook

A cloud of uncertainty, meanwhile, hangs over a site in Tainan’s Guanmiao District. On April 4 last year, Liberty Times reported the rediscovery by a cultural activist of a primitive sugar-refining facility in the area. Within days of its identification as a “sugar trickling kiln” (糖漏窯), a city councilor urged the authorities to ensure its preservation.

Over the years, at least 13 similar sites, some of them thought to date back to the mid-18th century, have been found in the southeastern part of Tainan. Almost all of them have disappeared due to development. Evidence of traditional sugar processing was also uncovered during salvage digs at the STSP.

The Guanmiao site is an overgrown mound smaller than a tennis court. Close inspection reveals two places where a long-buried brick structure – the kiln – has become exposed to the air. The ground is littered with pieces of brick-red pottery – fragments, it is supposed, of the unglazed conical receptacles that were mass-produced for use in small-scale pre-industrial sugar refineries.

The mound has been covered with tarpaulins, and bags of grit have been piled around its base, presumably to protect it from both extreme weather and the earthmoving equipment that is stripping and flattening the adjacent floodplain.   

According to a Liberty Times report from March 4 this year, the Tainan City government will begin rescue work as soon as it receives a NT$3 million subsidy from the central government. Once again, archaeological work – in this case, the study of a relic representing an industry that shaped the history of Taiwan – will depend on political priorities.

The Long Road to Preserving Taiwan’s Historical Relics

Huilai Archaeological Site. Photo: Steven Crook

Chen Maa-ling, an archaeologist in the Department of Anthropology at National Taiwan University, says she hopes that “politicians and major officials in the central and local governments, as well as the general public, can recognize the significance of the past and the role that archaeology plays in the study and preservation of cultural heritage.”

In Chen’s opinion, archaeological projects and cultural heritage work are still underfunded in Taiwan compared to other places. Consequently, their roles in shaping a modern society remain unfulfilled, and the lack of job opportunities for students in these fields will push this problem into the future. She notes that given Taiwan’s level of economic development, these issues could easily be resolved. But first, those in positions of power need to attach greater importance to the roles archaeological heritage can play in the lives of the people of Taiwan.

Nonetheless, Chen concedes that in the 24 years since she began conducting archaeological research in Taiwan, the legal and regulatory environment for excavations and preservation has improved.

Article 54 of the Cultural Heritage Preservation Act states that the owners and users of land (public or private) shall not reject or obstruct the “protection, investigation or excavation of archaeological sites” without justification, while Article 57 stipulates that if a potential archaeological site is unearthed during construction or development, work shall immediately stop and the discovery reported to the local government. The Act also calls for fines of up to NT$20 million and jail terms as long as five years if such sites are damaged.

Unfortunately, Chen adds, the financial strength and lobbying power of private enterprises, and the government’s prioritizing of economic development, put archaeology and cultural heritage in the back seat. “Politicians always stand on the side of development projects and against the protection of archaeological sites,” she laments.

“More and more people like to learn about archaeology, and some get involved in outreach programs, taking action to support the preservation of archaeological heritage,” Chen says. However, she points out, it is still rare for a development project to be modified or canceled for the sake of protecting an archaeological site important to the greater public. “When salvage archaeology is permitted to be carried out, it’s usually to pave the way for construction.”