Shuidonggou – A Time and Space Tunnel of China’s Archaeology Study – Li Li

By: and Li Li

October 9, 2018

Shuidonggou is a beautiful national park located in Ningxia province, North West China. The Shuidonggou Site is the earliest Paleolithic site in China, and is called the “Birthplace of Prehistoric Archaeology in China.” Shuidonggou was first discovered by a Belgian paleontologist named Kent while he was doing missionary work in China in 1920. He found a fossil of a rhinoceros and a stone tool at a cliff of the now Shuidonggou ruins when he was resting at a local staging post called “Zhang San Xiao Dian.” Kent shared his discovery with two French paleontologists Teilhard de Chardin and E. Licent later. The two paleontologists decided to come to Shuidonggou and conducted a formal excavation in the summer of 1923. Abundant evidence of animal bones and stone tools weighed more than 300 kg were unearthed from this excavation. Since then, there have been a total of 6 major excavations conducted at Shuidonggou, and this site is recognized as one of the most important prehistoric sites in China. More than 50,000 artifacts including stone tools, fauna, ostrich egg shell beads, and hearths were discovered from twelve parts of the site.

Beautiful rainbow after a thunderstorm. Photo by author.

The first excavation I participated on was the Shuidonggou Site 2 excavation in the summer of 2016. I was not an anthropology student yet back then; I was studying computer science at University of California Davis but wanted to learn about archaeology, and was lucky to be introduced to the Shuidonggou excavation by my formal advisor, Nicolas Zwyns.

Shuidonggou Site 2. Photo by author.

Before joining the excavation, I tried to mentally prepare myself for any difficulties I might encounter, but the dig environment was much more pleasant than I had anticipated. The crew lived in a nice dig house minutes away from the site, everyone had their own bed and clean sheets, and what was even better, a cook was hired to prepare three meals a day and wash the dishes for us. The atmosphere was a delight, both at the site and at the dig house. The senior researchers were very kind and patient to students, and one thing they wanted to make sure was that everyone could learn something from the excavation. I learned how to use a total station and dig with a trowel, which are two very important skills to have in the field.

A view of the dig house. Photo by author.
The girls have decided to have some ice cream before starting our afternoon excavation. Photo by Huaqin Wang.

This year, I went to Shuidonggou not only to participate in the excavation of Site 1, the most classic locality, but also to work on my own project. This project is a collaboration between researchers in China, Australia, and the US, with the goal of using different computational analyses to study lithic orientation at Shuidonggou Site 2. I got the opportunity to operate a drone and make a 3D model of an archaeological site.

A photo of students helping me prepare a test square to scatter flakes for my project. Photo by author.

Shuidonggou is famous for having both prehistoric and historic sites, dating from more than 30,000 years ago to about 500 years ago. Besides the Paleolithic sites, the Shuidonggou Great Wall, dating from the Ming dynasty, is another very important site. The Great Wall was an important defense base during the Ming Dynasty, the portion preserved at Shuidonggou is known as the East Line of the Ming Great Wall. Among the ruins of the Wall, my favorite site is the Troops Hidden Cave, which was used to hide soldiers and their supplies. The cave was built with all kinds of deadly traps to prevent sneak attacks from the enemy, and tourists can walk through the cave to get a sense of the complicated structure. I was amazed by the cave during my visit–it has various kinds of military facilities and a great number of rooms (lounges, meeting rooms, and kitchens) for soldiers to perform daily tasks.

Taking part in the Shuidonggou excavation has been a great experience. The Shuidonggou site also has special meaning to me as it was my introduction to the world of doing field archaeology. I have met and maintained relationships with many great and brilliant people during the excavation. I look forward to collaborating with them in the future to discover more about the Paleolithic of China.

A group photo taken by the drone. Photo by Jialong Guo.


Li Li is a second year PhD student in the Anthropology program.