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Water-land Inbetweenness: The Potentials of Hong Kong’s Wetland Archaeology

2021/3/31 — 16:09

Part of the whole mangrove forest in Kuk Po. (Photo by Jay Mok)

Part of the whole mangrove forest in Kuk Po. (Photo by Jay Mok)

【Author: Jay Mok】

Foreword

Google will tell you that Hong Kong is a small special administrative region, situated in the Southeast littoral of China with an area of 1,108-square-kilometre. Yet, unknown to most, Hong Kong inherits myriads of coastal and freshwater wetlands, and they mostly lied within or closely to the ‘Sites of Archaeological Interests’ identified by the Antiquities and Monuments Office. The Bishop Hill Reservoir case has spurred social debates on the status of a land-based mindset in heritage preservation in Hong Kong – but what about the water-based sites, or more so in the partially submerged terrestrial sites? Statistics show that at least 15% of Hong Kong’s officially charted countryside are inland wetlands. Wetland archaeology, as a sparsely studied subject, has an ambiguous standpoint owing to its inbetweenness of water and land. But perhaps it is precisely due to its obscured water-logged but occasionally-parched positioning, wetlands could be one of the superb locations to conduct archaeological work. This article aims to review the wetland archaeological landscape in Hong Kong and draws attention to the potentials of wetland archaeology in revealing maritime lives and histories of Hong Kong.

Figure 1) Sites of archaeological interests in Hong Kong, retrieved from Antiquities and Monuments Office in Hong Kong ( https://www.amo.gov.hk/en/archaeology_interest.php )

Figure 1) Sites of archaeological interests in Hong Kong, retrieved from Antiquities and Monuments Office in Hong Kong ( https://www.amo.gov.hk/en/archaeology_interest.php )

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Defining Wetland archaeology

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Wetland archaeology is a slippery discipline to define since it goes beyond the interrogation of scientific data provided by the wetlands or partially submerged terrestrial sites. It is a multi-disciplinary field that takes the cultural, ideological, economic, and other societal factors into its journey of inquiry. Wetland archaeology deals with the recognition of various categories of wetlands and new types are discovered from time to time: for example, coastal wetlands, which could be estuaries, with saltmarshes, mudflats; there are also freshwater wetlands including rivers, lakes and ponds, marshes and meadows. The author posits wetland archaeology as the use of wetlands and wetland-related environmental evidence to enhance archaeological understanding of all past lives.

Tools used in wetland archaeology’s Survey

Like land-based or maritime-based archaeologists, the typical methods and techniques deployed by wetland archaeologists are mainly survey and excavation. The emphasis on non-destructive geophysical methods in detecting organic materials in waterlogged sediments, for instance, is seen in the article by Weller and Bauerochse in the Oxford Handbook of Archaeology, published in 2013, on the use of Spectral Induced Polarization Method (SIP) and Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) in field surveys. The use of acoustic (sound) systems by maritime archaeologists, such as the profiling methods by single-beam echo sounders (SBES) and sub-bottom profilers (SBP), or the swath methods by side-scan sonars (SSS) and swath bathymetry sonars (SwBS) are all useful to wetland archaeologists.

Where are the wetlands in Hong Kong

According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), more than three-quarters of the whole of Hong Kong is considered countryside, and there are around 66.4-square-kilometre of officially chartedinland wetlands located near or within the countryside. There are 24 officially registered Country Parks (CPs) and 22 Designated Special Areas (DSAs) predominated by streams, woodlands, hills, reservoirs and coastline areas. Amongst these DSAs, 11 of them lies outside of the CPs, thus the total of officially charted areas of CPs and DSAs marks 443.12-square-kilometre. This means that at least 15% of Hong Kong’s officially charted countryside are wetlands. However, the official statistics fail to show wetlands that are located at the border of land – a typical issue of a land-based mindset reflected not just in urban planning, but also in archaeology.

For these officially recorded wetlands in Hong Kong, they are mainly located in the northwest of New Territories, which includes reservoir (24.8-square-kilometre), aquaculture pond (15.9-square-kilometre), marsh (11-square-kilometre), artificial drainage channel (7.2-square-kilometre), river & stream (4.6-square-kilometre) and wet agricultural land (2.9-square-kilometre). There is also a Wetland Reserve within the Hong Kong Wetland Park, which occupying 0.61-square-kilometre of wetlands for public education programmes in birding watching, planting and preservation of natural resources.

Wetland archaeological Research in Hong Kong

Perhaps it is due to the impression of a concrete jungle over Hong Kong by most foreign scholars, in the Journal of Wetland Archaeology, one of several reputed international journals about partially submerged terrestrial sites, no article is written about Hong Kong’s wetland and its potential in archaeology. Zooming out to Asia, there are only six articles written in the same Journal of Wetland Archaeology. Leave aside the typical euro-centricity argument, this omission of Hong Kong (and arguably Asia) wetlands in the context of wetland archaeology is partially driven by an internal oblivion of wetland archaeology as a sole research focus within the discipline of archaeology. There are only so few HK universities actively teaches Hong Kong archaeology, and they are mostly from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU). There are no known courses offered at HK universities that tackle wetland archaeology, although some topics of submerged heritage and cases on the Tanka minorities will be discussed in some art history and anthropology courses at HKU and CUHK. Therefore, to locate wetland archaeology in the context of Hong Kong, or to comment on the Hong Kong wetland archaeological sites is doomed excessively challenging.

Maritime, Environmental and Wetland archaeology: Overlapping?

The potential of wetland archaeology is much related to the scientific approaches that fall into the discipline of environmental archaeology: archaeobotany, insect and soil analysis, palaeoecology, geoarchaeology, DNA analysis, palaeoclimatology, radio-carbon dating, dendrochronology, and lacustrine varve dating. But In terms of the methodological difference between maritime archaeology and wetland archaeology, the author proposes that it lies on the varying degree of emphasis of a diachronic ‘landscape approach’ versus a synchronic ‘site approach’. Perhaps it was due to the ambiguity in defining wetland and its relationship to land and water, wetland archaeologists tend to be more open-minded on holistic landscape research that deploys a greater range of inter-disciplinary analytical methods and data-collection technologies, whereas for maritime archaeologists, for instance, they are still beginning to progress from a shipwreck-based or ship-building approaches to the more inclusive ‘cultural landscape’ approaches, which was first laid down by Westerdahl in 1992.

Examples of wetland archaeological potentials in Hong Kong

Kuk Po (Chinese:谷埔) and Yung Shue Au (Chinese:榕樹凹) are two of the many under-researched wetland sites located in the Northeast of Hong Kong (facing Sha Tau Kok area, interjoins with Kong Ha, Shenzhen, mainland China). They are directly sitting at the border of the Plover Cove Country Park, but most of the wetlands, such as the Kandelia obovata Sheue mangrove forest, a common mangrove plant seen in Hong Kong (Figure 3), woods (Figure 4), marshes (Figure 5) and other coastline waters (Figure 6) are excluded from the Country Park.

Figure 2) Satellite Image of Kuk Po (blue dot) Yung Shue Au (red dot)

Figure 2) Satellite Image of Kuk Po (blue dot) Yung Shue Au (red dot)

Figure 3) part of the whole mangrove forest in Kuk Po.

Figure 3) part of the whole mangrove forest in Kuk Po.

Figure 4) Woodland in Kuk Po, mixed with living and dead bushes

Figure 4) Woodland in Kuk Po, mixed with living and dead bushes

According to the Shang Zhitan and Ng Wai Hung in their publication of The Research and Discussion of Hong Kong Archaeology (2010), there has been no archaeological excavation conducted in Kuk Po or Yung Shu Au, although they did make a note on Kuk Po’s well-preserved archaeological condition on their list of 173 archaeological sites (note that the list provided by Shang and Ng does not fully replicate the ‘Sites of Archaeological Interests’ from AMO). A signboard (Figure 7) indicates that there should be no unofficial excavation conducted in the region, suggesting that there are potential material remains that are of archaeological interests, and possibly in well ‘pristine’ condition and could be suitable for conducting excavation and other types of fieldwork.

Future of Hong Kong Wetland archaeology

To wrap up, the above examples are just part of a larger wetland archaeological landscape in Hong Kong and there could be much to do in exploring the cultural landscape of these wetlands – particularly on how their ambiguous yet entangling relationship with land and water reflects through potential archaeological finds and evidence of past maritime lives in Hong Kong.

Figure 5) Marshes in Yung Shu Au (Yung Shu Au is now an abandon village with no occupant)

Figure 5) Marshes in Yung Shu Au (Yung Shu Au is now an abandon village with no occupant)

Figure 6.1) Coastline, Kuk Po

Figure 6.1) Coastline, Kuk Po

Figure 6.2) Coral fish in shallow water near coastline, Yung Shu Au

Figure 6.2) Coral fish in shallow water near coastline, Yung Shu Au

Figure 7) “Government Land: No Occupation, Dumping, Excavation and Cultivating, Offenders will be Prosecuted” Signboard in Kuk Po

Figure 7) “Government Land: No Occupation, Dumping, Excavation and Cultivating, Offenders will be Prosecuted” Signboard in Kuk Po

Author’s bio:
Jay is a passionate Hongkonger with an interest in archaeology, digital humanities and heritage exploration projects. She is also at presence a postgraduate student reading Archaeology at the University of Oxford.

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