Wang Wei (right) and Gao Wei in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt
For Gao Wei, breaking ground is nothing new. As a Chinese archeologist, he has taken part in countless digs throughout the country. But when the first Chinese shovel hits the dirt in Egypt, expected to happen in October this year, it takes on special significance, both for him and for Chinese archeology.
"Opportunities such as this one to collaborate with foreign archeologists are especially hard to come by. Even though I am an Egyptologist by training, I never had the chance to work in Egypt, so the team members and I are very excited about our first cooperation project in Egypt," he told ChinAfrica.
Gao is a member of the Chinese archeological team that will take part in the first Sino-Egyptian joint excavation project. Working side by side with Egyptian colleagues, he will be among the first Chinese archeologists to uncover the hidden secrets of the ancient Pharaonic capital of Thebes, located in south Egypt’s Luxor.
"For us, the most important thing is to be able to touch the relics with our hands. Although we have plenty of documents to help us understand Egypt’s rich heritage, for archeologists, nothing can replace being on the ground, taking in the atmosphere of the site, and feeling with our own hands a genuine piece of Egypt’s history," said Gao.
There are around 250 international archeological missions in Egypt, including 11 in Luxor alone, according to Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. But until now, none came from China.
"This convinced us that international exchange is a pressing task that needs to be fulfilled for Chinese archeology," said Wang Wei, Director of the Research Center for Chinese Archeology Abroad, an affiliate of the Institute of Archeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). "We now have the ability to go out and help others with funds, technology and skills. We have entered an era of going out into the world."
The center aims at improving the role and position of China in the global archeological field, and facilitating exchange with foreign counterparts. Already, the Institute of Archeology has started sending its best experts to take part in joint digs in a dozen countries, including India, Honduras and Kenya.
"This is a good thing for Chinese archeology, because we can observe our peers and compare ourselves, and this greatly improves our know-how. It’s a very rewarding experience," said Gao.
Whenever they go, Chinese archeologists are most welcomed by local partners, not least for the expertise and technologies they bring with them.
In 2010, a team of 11 Chinese archeologists went to Kenya to search for the ancient shipwreck of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) maritime explorer Zheng He. The team was later praised by the Kenyan Government for having improved the country’s underwater surveying techniques.
"Chinese experts are highly skilled professionals who brought their expertise in underwater archeological excavations, as well as special skills in the identification of Chinese ceramics," Kiriama Herman, a Kenyan archeologist who took part in the joint Sino-Kenyan digs, told ChinAfrica.
Wang Wei in the Karnak Temple Complex, in Luxor, where the Chinese archaeological team will soon start to work
Egyptian counterparts have similar expectations for the coming joint dig, which will take place in the Precinct of Montu, a part of the Karnak Temple Complex.
"China has the latest advanced technology in the discovery of monuments and excavations, and experience in how to deal with these treasures, including restoration, exhibition and protection of monuments and heritage," Mohamed Hassan Abdel Fattah, Director of Archaeological Documentation at Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, told ChinAfrica.
He said cooperation between the two ancient civilizations could mean a "big bang" in the field of archeology, adding that 3D remote sensing and imaging and radar technologies could be put to use to uncover hidden royal tombs.
"What delighted us is that Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities has a very open attitude to the application of new techniques, and they welcome different working methods of different countries. Our techniques have proved to be effective for Chinese archeology, and we shall see if they give similar results in Egypt," said Gao.
Although China is a latecomer to Egyptology, the archeological team members expressed confidence in their ability to up their game in this field and contribute to the exploration of Luxor.
"Our focus is, first and foremost, on learning, because we believe that we can all learn a lot from our cooperation. For example, for environmental reasons, Egyptian archeologists have a better understanding of stones, while the Chinese team has stronger expertise in soil tones," explained Gao.
He and his colleagues have done their homework to prepare themselves for this journey, including collecting data on the site where they will work. Moreover, the Institute of Archeology invited world-renowned experts to give the team a series of 13 lectures on ancient Egyptian civilization.
Cooperation in the digging pits can open up new channels for broader relations between the two countries’ archeologists, said Fattah.
Archeology is not only about revealing mysteries of the past, but also about educating the public, he told ChinAfrica, adding that more attention should be given to cooperation in the fields of museology, culture and education.
This is in line with the mission of Gao and other Chinese archeologists in Egypt, whose objective, said Wang Wei, is "not only to decipher Chinese civilization, but also to contribute their wisdom to unravelling the mysteries that remain unresolved in the study of world civilization."
(This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand. )
(Reporting from Luxor, Egypt)