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September 22, 2017

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Digging up history in Tainan's Science Park

He confirmed that the strange arrangement of the skeletons (each pointed in a slightly different direction) was probably the result of fengshui (風水)considerations. I asked why, in some cases, the feet were 20 or 30 centimeters higher than the head. He explained that the ground hereabouts was particularly soft, and prone to uneven sinking. Some of the bodies were buried in conventional wooden coffins. These caskets had long ago rotted away, but Mr. Liu pointed out a few nails among the bones. Other skeletons, however, still lay inside coffins made of a most unusual material — crushed oyster shells. I knew that oyster shell cement use to be a common building material (the oldest buildings in Tainan City's Anping district were constructed with this kind of cement), but I had never heard of oyster shell caskets.

Later I wondered if these caskets, which are several centimeters thick, had helped preserve archaeological evidence that might otherwise have disappeared. Oyster shells have a high calcium carbonate content, and accumulations of them are therefore alkaline.

This slows the rate of decay by counteracting soil acidity, and has been known to result in there being a relatively high proportion of organic evidence (such as food remnants) available for the archaeologist to find. Taiwan is a crowded island, so disputes between those hoping to further explore or better preserve ancient remains, and those wishing to develop the land, are inevitable. According to the Council for Cultural Affairs' website, there have been controversies of this kind in Nantou, Yunlin, and Hualien counties.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see Taiwan's soil being sifted in the search for knowledge about the island's earliest inhabitants. Mr. Liu told me that his team has scouted out other promising locations elsewhere in the Science Park, and that they plan to start work on another site in 2007. I hope to come back and see how they are doing.

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