Thursday, 5 May 2011

A rare canal time-capsule found in Liaocheng

After the discovery of a perfectly preserved Ming-dynasty woman in a grave in Jiangsu a while back I posted the first account from the archaeologists concerned. This time, even though the story’s far more relevant to my travel-writing, I managed to miss it for four months after it broke in China...
Not that a surprisingly well preserved stone-built lock from the old Grand Canal is going anywhere soon. In August of last year, with work going on to prepare the ground for the South-North Water Transfer Project which in a few years’ time will carry water from the Yangtze to Tianjin, partly along the route of the Grand Canal, a stone flash-lock was uncovered in the city of Liaocheng 聊城. Before the Grand Canal became disused in its Shandong section around a century ago, Liaocheng was one of its major inland ports. The canal’s sudden disappearance from the landscape left its structures decaying but otherwise intact, unlike further south where widening and modernisation in the twentieth century destroyed what remained of the original fabric. Liaocheng alone is said to have a dozen more buried lock sites waiting to be investigated.

The photo gives an impression of quite how enormous and expertly constructed the locks on the Grand Canal were, with a mouth more than 6m wide and a total depth of 7.5m. The stones were beautifully finished, and held in place by swallowtail-shaped iron ingots set into their joint faces. The vertical grooves into which slotted the wooden boards forming the weir of the flash-lock (according to written records it was first built in 1471 and rebuilt in 1758) are clearly visible. Thousands of pottery, jade and metal artefacts, dropped no doubt from barges passing the lock, were discovered during the excavation, which took four months.
With the South-North Water Transfer Project due for completion in 2013 (don’t hold your breath), the lock is set to be renovated as part of the route. The plan seems to be to preserve the lock alongside a new, wider channel that will have the capacity to carry the anticipated volumes of water north without putting strain on the fabric of the lock itself. There are plans to restore the wharves associated with the lock, and to turn the whole area into a visitor attraction.  
The whole story, with more photos, is in Chinese on the Shandong News Net website. 

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