Luce Foundation grant underwrites study of ancient Chinese landscapes

Gwen Bennett, Ph.D., assistant professor of art history and archaeology in Arts & Sciences, has received a three-year, $335,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation Initiative on East and Southeast Asian Archaeology and Early History. The grant will allow Bennett to expand her ongoing fieldwork into the ancient landscape and settlements of the Chengdu Plain in China’s Sichuan Province.

The Chengdu Plain was home to some of the earliest states in East Asia, dating back to the second millennium B.C., Bennett said.

However, “almost nothing is known of the political, social or natural landscapes preceding, contemporaneous with, or postdating this initial state emergence,” she said. “This survey will expand our understanding of the relationship between landscape change and social evolution.”

Bennett launched the Chengdu project as a one-month pilot study in 2005-06, centering on Gucheng, one of nine known late Neolithic walled sites in the region.

After a subsequent field season in 2006-07, she developed a two-tiered process, consisting of systematic, full-coverage surface survey as well as bucket auger sampling. Fieldwork will begin in earnest this December.

The Luce Foundation Grant — Bennett’s second — will allow her to expand the research team to cover more than 300 square kilometers surrounding the Gucheng site. Bennett herself will lead the surface survey. Collaborator Rowan Flad, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropological archaeology at Harvard University, will lead the sub-surface auguring.

Other collaborators — representing several WUSTL departments as well as National Taiwan University, Beijing University, the Chengdu City Archaeology Institute and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Archaeology — will participate in the survey and in geomorphological testing to reconstruct the history of the area’s landscape evolution; and will help collect and process ceramic, soil and other samples for seriation, radiocarbon dating and paleoenvironmental reconstruction.

“Soon many of the region’s prehistoric remains will be impossible to identify due to the rapid urbanization around Chengdu and Gucheng,” Bennett said. “It is vital that this systematic research occur as soon as possible, before the prehistory of this critical region is completely lost.”

In addition to its archaeological findings, the Chengdu project will provide several opportunities for educational exchange. WUSTL students from the departments of history, art history and archaeology, anthropology, earth and planetary sciences and Asian and Near Eastern languages and literatures, all in Arts & Sciences, will be able to design research projects centering on the Gucheng region, with some participating in fieldwork.

Conversely, participating Chinese archaeologists will have an opportunity to study Western approaches through a special six-week course held at the Center for American Archaeology in Kampsville, Ill.

“Western archaeologists have participated in field work in China for over a decade now and have benefited immensely from these opportunities,” Bennett said. “Chinese archaeologists rarely obtain the same opportunities to participate in Western projects.”

Preliminary findings will be published in the Chengdu City Archaeology Institute’s annual report.