Fri, Sep 06, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Highways & Byways: In Tainan science park, a new window on the past opens

Several hundred of the approximately eight million items recovered from digs around the science park are now on display in the Museum of Archaeology

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

Some educated guesswork has gone into the miniature dioramas which depict life in prehistoric settlements. At local pre-Han sites, the only evidence of dwellings found so far are small holes perhaps left by bamboo columns. Accordingly, the dioramas feature huts like those indigenous people are known to have assembled using bamboo, wood and thatch.

With the exception of two mockup graves (one human, one canine), almost everything in the display cases was found in the vicinity of the museum. Several items are thrillingly ancient. Others aren’t quite so old. They’re just — for want of a better word — exceptionally “cool.”

Among the detritus left behind by the Siraya community at Shenei (社內) are four dice made of deer antler, a material that ethnic group also turned into knife handles. The sides of each die are marked with between one and six dots, just like the dice that have been used for thousands of years across the rest of Asia and Europe.

It’s not known if the Siraya learned about dice from Han people, or from the Dutch who occupied Tainan for part of the 17th century. Another find from Shenei almost certainly came from Europeans. The porcelain figurine is incomplete and smaller than a thumb drive, yet grips what could be a telescope, and wears a tricorn hat, just like a Western sailor of that era.

Before visiting the museum, I had never seen urns which served as coffins. Two from the Niuchoutzu phase (3,300 to 3,800 years ago), found broken into dozens of pieces at the Yousianfang (右先方) site and reassembled, are displayed. According to Peter Bellwood’s First Islanders: Prehistory and Human Migration in Island Southeast Asia (2017), these burial jars are “the oldest evidence for this tradition in Island Southeast Asia by perhaps a millennium.”

Other ceramic items include net sinkers (for fishing), medicine pots, and porcelain plates and bowls that were made in Japan and Vietnam. There are arrowheads, axes, chisels, knives and hammers fashioned from stone. Bone relics include a perforated human mandible possibly used for decorative or ritual purposes.

Visitors can get a good look at one of the science park’s most photographed treasures: a globular human face made of clay and found at the Niaosong era site at Daoye (道爺). This primal work of art is more than 1,000 years old, and it’s one of a number from that site which display “a rather mature level of craftsmanship… distinctive traits of the bridge of the nose and the eyebrow ridge, as well as the placement of the eye sockets and nostrils” (Archaelogical Heritage in the Tainan Science Park of Taiwan by Cheng-hwa Tsang (臧振華) and Kuang-ti Li (李匡悌), published by the National Museum of Prehistory).

At the end of my visit, I walked around the outside of the museum to better appreciate architect Kris Yao’s (姚仁喜) design. The building has received silver-level certification from EEWH (Taiwan’s official sustainable-architecture rating system, akin to LEED in the US), despite being covered with black basalt imported from China.

This choice of material baffles me. In terms of albedo (the percentage of total solar radiation received by a surface that it reflects rather than absorbs), it could hardly be worse. Just before midday on a summer’s day, I touched the basalt in several places. Cloudy sky notwithstanding, it was very warm.

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