China and Sweden, Treasured Memories, Forbidden City exhibition 2005

The Swedish exhibition of Chinese Porcelain at the Palace Museum, Beijing, 2005


Johan Gunnar Andersson
and the Discovery of the Stone Age Agriculturalist Past of China

By Eva Myrdal

" …When I had reached the northern side of the ravine I saw, in the side of a gully, a very interesting section. At the bottom the red Tertiary clay is exposed, and it is with clearly demarcated contact overlaid by a peculiar loose soil, full of ashes and containing fragments of pottery… After some minutes' search I found at the very bottom of the deposit a small piece of fine red ware with black painting on a beautiful polished surface,

the Swedish geologist-cum-archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874-1960) wrote in the archaeological report on his work in China 1921 to 1926.

The report was published in the Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (BMFEA) 1947. What he relates here is the story about how the rich Neolithic settlement site in Yangshao village in Henan province was discovered in 1921. This was the first discovery, or the first discovery understood as such, in a field-context, of cultural remains from the Stone Age agriculturalists that once lived in what is now China.

That the Palace Museum now exhibits material borrowed from the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (MFEA) in Stockholm, but emanating from the archaeological work by J.G Andersson and the Chinese team in Henan and Gansu in the 1920s don't add scientifically to the now abundant Neolithic material available in China through field research undertaken since the 1920s. It is significant in another respect, as it reconfirms the mutual understanding of the importance of this discovery, and of the friendly relations that was then established between the scholarly communities of both countries.

The quotation above reveals part of the story of how this discovery could be made. The event is intimately linked to Johan Gunnar Andersson's background as a geologist and field worker, being able to interpret soil stratigraphy and landscape formations in a historical perspective. But to describe the discovery as a "one-man-show" would be false. False not only as such a description overlook the fact that he went to Yangshao because of samples of cultural material found there and brought to him by one of the Chinese team members a few months earlier. As human beings we always work in a specific historical and social context. To understand how the discovery could be made, we have to take into consideration the Chinese society during the early years of the Republic. As a legacy to the Andersson tradition this aspect has recently been highlighted in print, as a result of a fruitful collaboration between the former director of the MFEA, Magnus Fiskesjö and the Chinese archaeologist Chen Xincan, in one of the exhibition catalogues to the new permanent exhibition "China before China" at the MFEA.

What is highlighted there is the young republic of the early 20th century where people at various levels of society were eager to work for better conditions, material and intellectual. Many initiatives were thus taken. One was to start developing the mining industry.

The Swedish geologist Erik Nyström worked at the university of Taiyuan, Shanxi, during the early 20th century. He recommended J.G. Andersson to the Ministry for Agriculture and Commerce in Beijing. J.G. Andersson had been the Director General of the Geological Survey of Sweden, and he had taken part in various scientific expeditions to Arctic and Antarctic regions. The Ministry recruited Andersson in May 1914 as a Mining Adviser. From 1916 he came to work with the newly founded National Geological Survey, to help develop China's mining industry also by training young Chinese geology students in the field, collaborating first with the founding Director Ding Wenjiang and later with the Director Weng Wenhao.

The intellectual as well as practical bases for the discovery of the Neolithic past of what is now China could therefore be sought in the fruitful collaboration between J G Andersson, and his Chinese counterparts Ding Wenjiang and Weng Wenhao.

Being a scholar with broad interests and a devoted field worker Andersson's work in China came to cover several fields of knowledge related to physical remains of natural and cultural history. Parallel to the search for ore and similar resources he took an interest in Palaeontology, and in remains of past human activities. It was this combined interests that led to his suggestion that the quartz flakes found in 1921 at the site of the Zhoukoudian cave approximately 50 km southwest of Beijing, might have been used as tools and thus indicate the presence of fossil bones from early man. A thought that led him to push for further excavations at the site, and eventually to the discovery in 1923, by Zdansky and his team of the "Pekingman", that is remains of Homo Erectus, inhabiting the area some 600 000-400 000 years before present.

The discoveries in Yangshao laid the foundation for initiating archaeological field research in China, together with the NGS and its Director Ding Wenjiang. The latter also took great interest in the humanities and in prehistoric research. Funding for the archaeological research was forthcoming from an interested group of influential and wealthy people in Sweden, working through "Kinakommittén" (the China committee) which was initiated by the industrialist Axel Lagrelius, and strongly supported by the then Crown prince of Sweden, Gustav Adolf (later king Gustav VI Adolf).

We get a glimpse of the vibrant social environment in China in the 1920s through a letter from J.G. Andersson to the Crown prince in September 1921. Gustav Adolf took a keen interest in archaeology also as a practicing archaeologist, in Sweden and abroad. Andersson discusses the possibility that Gustav Adolf could visit China and says.

" … I furthermore also regard it as a given that Your Royal Highness just as at home is ready to personally work and study in the field. The fact is that decadent mandarinism has created a bias here against the participation of members of the upper class in any work that taxes the strength of the body. We have encountered this difficulty, but we have been able to train a team of young government geologists, who see it as a natural thing to make use of their legs and arms in field work …" (Translation taken from "China before China", p 38).

The questions in relation to the material, asked by Andersson and his Chinese colleagues in the early 1920s, mirrors the research interest of that period, of course. The question of the geographical "origin" and "diffusion" of various cultural traits were at that time in focus. The richly painted Neolithic pottery from Yangshao raised the question of links to painted Neolithic ceramics found further west in Central Asia and southern Russia.

In pursuing this question, Andersson and the team took up field exploration further northwest, in Gansu and Qinghai. While staying in Lanzhou during the winter 1923/24 Andersson gave lectures about the prehistoric painted pottery to schoolboys in a nearby missionary school. Soon he was offered to buy intact prehistoric painted pots which had since long been in the custody of a former official. Buying these, more came to be offered by the local people, and regarding these latter, Andersson came to realize that they had left their archaeological context very recently. Zhuang Yongcheng, one of the team members, was sent out to find from where they had been excavated, and returning he could relate that they came from looting of prehistoric graves close to the town Didao above the Tao River south of Lanzhou. He could further relate that the official in charge of the district had had to send soldiers to the site, in order to stop the fighting between competing looters.

To prevent further looting, Andersson stopped purchasing urns. He wrote in the BMFEA report 15, 1943:

" … in order to do what I could to prevent further violation I visited the governor and suggested that he should instruct the local authorities to see that the local population should not commit further outrages against these precious scientific monuments of ancient civilizations."

Several months later he and his team were able travel to the find spot, or rather "spots" in the mountainous area of Banshan in Gansu. Stunned by what he saw he later wrote:

" … it soon became clear to me how many hundreds of graves containing burial ware of unique size and beauty had been looted by a desecration which had for all time rendered impossible a scientific investigation of the connection between various objects in the graves. " (BMFEA 1943)

As is well known, such looting and destruction is still an acute, and even a growing problem in the 21st century and of great concern to governments, museums and the public at large.

Post excavation development

The whole material was brought to Sweden, and documents regulating the division of the material between China and Sweden were exchanged and signed. In Stockholm the work with documentation, conservation, reconstruction and labeling of the objects begun. All objects were labeled either P for objects to be sent back to Beijing or S for objects to be kept in Stockholm. The return shipments of objects destined for Beijing started in 1927 and continued until 1936.

It had been necessary for the National Geological Survey to move its headquarter to Nanjing. A museum had been opened in the NGS building, and in 1936, during his last visit to China, Andersson was able to visit the exhibition of the Neolithic pottery from Gansu, that is the material, which had been sent back to China. After the Japanese invasion all traces of the collection have been lost. In his book In the Midst of War (1938) he gives the last, presently known, account of the material:

… First of all we see the splendid funeral urns from Kansu, which we had in Stockholm for investigation and which now have been moved here from Peking.

In Sweden an interesting development had taken place during the preceding decade. The China Committee, which due to its funding of the fieldwork, were considered the formal owner of the material kept in Sweden, transferred the ownership to the state and the parliament decided in February 1926 in favour of instituting a museum to take care of the material, under the administration of the Royal Academy of Letters. The founding collections of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities were the Neolithic material from Henan, Gansu and Qinghai and J.G. Andersson was appointed its first director and at the same time Professor of East Asian Archaeology at Stockholm University. The exhibition opened in 1929. Apart from the periods when he museum has changed location, or updated its presentations, the Neolithic material from the first excavation in China of a prehistoric site has since then been on display in Stockholm.


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