Archaeological discovery reveals China’s link to Africa

A Chinese and Kenyan archaeological team has discovered evidence that Chinese traders visited Kenya in the 15th century. A coin minted between 1403 and 1424 and a sherd of porcelain dating to the early Ming dynasty were found in the remains of a village. The excavation by Peking University and local archaeologists was searching for clues to the voyages of Zheng He, who led a fleet of more than 200 ships on numerous trips across the Indian Ocean.

The coin was of a special make used by representatives of the emperor and the porcelain may have came from a kiln reserved for the use of the royal family, so these finds are evidence of an official visit.

An article on BBC gives further details, and adds that China is renewing its historic ties to Africa. In 2008 China had $107 billion in trade with the continent, a figure that’s been increasing dramatically every year. This trade outstrips every other nation including the United States. During my trip to Ethiopia I saw Chinese engineers with Ethiopian road crews building highways and bridges, and the Chinese are beginning to build factories too.

In the past few years there’s also been a dramatic increase in Chinese tourists. Ten years ago I never saw a Chinese tour group in Oxford or London; now I see them every day. The face of travel is changing.

While the discovery is big news to Western archaeologists, it only confirms what the Chinese and Africans knew all along–that there have been centuries of ties between the regions. Residents of Lamu, a port near the excavation site, have a tradition that they’re descended from one of Zheng He’s shipwrecked crews. Many have Chinese features. DNA tests show some of the residents do have Chinese ancestry. When I was in the medieval trading center of Harar in Ethiopia I noticed several people with vaguely Chinese features, and Harari coins have been found in China. Perhaps Chinese researchers should conduct some DNA tests in Harar.

[Photo courtesy user Hassan Saeed via Wikimedia Commons]

Tourist returns ancient piece of Jerusalem

The Israel Antiquities Authority got an interesting package from the U.S. recently, Archaeology News reported. It contained a piece of early medieval stonework and came with a note.

The note said that the sender, who apparently remained anonymous, had been an archaeology student 12 years ago and stole the stone from the excavation he was on so that he would have a memento with which to “pray for Jerusalem.” Instead, it made him feel guilty and so he decided to return it. Sometimes guilt takes a while to work.

At least this idiot had to pay a lot in postage. The stone weighed 21 kilograms (more than 46 pounds) and appears to be a portion of a marble column from the Umayyid Dynasty, a Muslim dynasty that ruled the region from 661 to 750 A.D. The Umayyids had the first major Muslim empire, ruling over a vast territory from their capital in Damascus. They were responsible for building two of the major Muslim sites in the holy city–The Dome of the Rock (pictured here) and Al-Aksa Mosque.

Israeli archaeologists believe the column came from a large palace complex built near the Temple Mount that served as the local seat of government.

As some travelers set off to volunteer at archaeological excavations this summer, this former archaeologist would like to remind them that stealing antiquities is not only immoral, but illegal, and could land you in jail. It will certainly get you an F in your archaeology class.