Yesterday we were taken to see our host's archaeological collection. This is where his famous shards are housed – the discovery that may cause Chinese ceramic history to be re-written. On purely aesthetic grounds it is a spectacular display of ancient ceramics, celadon glazed, and nicely presented in a small, well-lit, museum. The collection contains some truly beautiful pieces. The skill in their making is breathtaking, likewise the grace of their design. For some, this is enough: the work is definitely old and shows a technical proficiency that is difficult to match today.
But the historian in me is writhing. All the pieces, allegedly, came from a local kiln site discovered in 2008. On the basis of their appearance, Mr Dufeng (our host) has identified the shards as Tang Dynasty or earlier. However, they have not yet been accurately dated. Part of the problem is that Mr Dufeng and the Chinese archaeological establishment do not appear to be friends. As an amateur enthusiast with a clear commercial interest in putting Fuping on the archaeological tourist trail, Mr Dufeng is not highly regarded by Chinese scholars. But Mr Dufeng thinks that the establishment has a vested interest in discrediting his discovery. 'It is difficult,' he says, 'to change history. The experts do not want to admit it because they have written something in a book.'
Electro-carbon dating would clear the confusion up nicely; Mr Dufeng is aware of this and plans to buy the appropriate equipment from Europe. Financially this is a massive investment. But, even if the shards are as important as he imagines, there are still questions to be answered. The collection appears to be uncatalogued and the pieces are neither labelled nor numbered. They are stored according to theme: a box of little dragons, a box of tea-pot spouts. Many pieces have been hurriedly reconstructed by the workers in Mr Dufeng's own factory with scant regard for conservation principles. I can imagine archaeologists throwing up their hands in horror at the damage that has been done. Also, we saw no photographs of the shards in the ground, nor any record of their excavation. Unless Mr Dufeng has documented the excavation process, he may find it difficult to demonstrate the provenance of his collection.
After visiting the museum, Mr Dufeng took us to see the kiln site itself. We drove up a muddy track and through fields of corn. The entire site, he says, covers a 6 sq. km area. Most of it is under cultivation. We left the car and, pushing our way through the rustling corn, surprised an amateur archaeologist at work. Our driver let out a roar and leapt after him. The enthusiast fled through the muddy fields at speed, clutching his shovel.
Literally crunching ceramics shards underfoot, we came to a field of bare earth where fragments of translucent green celedon poked through the surface. Part of the area had been excavated with a JCB. The group scattered and, like beachcombers began to glean shards from the clay. Could we take them? Mr Dufeng nodded. He is a generous man. We left, our pockets rattling with fragments of ancient civilisation.
My own shards – so quickly did I vacate the moral high-ground – are in front of me as I write. I don't know what to do with them. I don't even know what they are. And I'm finding this difficult on several levels. I think that Mr Dufeng's interest in archeology is genuine. As his guest, I am complicit in his schemes, even without that small reproachful pile on my desk. But it seems wrong to see ancient and exquisite ceramics used as a tool for empire building. They deserve a more tender, more disinterested treatment.