Feel the cultural imprint of the 1,500-year-old Xumishan Caves


The 1,500-year-old Xumishan Caves, located in Guyuan City in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, are home to more than 160 caves and more than 1,000 statues.

Standing on Mount Xumi, one can see uniquely charming caves, Buddha statues, temples, ancient trees and strange rocks. No one would have imagined that what was a little-known mountain decades ago has become a famous historical and cultural site.

This change is intimately linked to the tireless efforts of archaeologists.

Recently, the archaeological report on Yuanguang Temple in Xumishan Caves was released. This work, published by the Cultural Relics Publishing House, was co-compiled by the Ningxia Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology, the Institute of Cultural Heritage of Zhejiang University and the Institute of relics of Xumishan caves. It chronicles the successful results obtained in the archaeological investigation of the Xumishan Caves, providing a new panoramic image of an important cave complex in northwest China and introducing the culture of the immortal caves to the public.

Xumishan Caves: a precious treasure of Buddhism

From the 1950s to the present day, three large-scale archaeological surveys have been carried out in the Xumishan Caves. It is an extremely arduous journey that involves the sustained and dedicated efforts of Chinese archaeologists.

SU Bai, a distinguished archaeologist in China, is the promoter and head of the archaeological activities of the Xumishan Caves. “Excavating the treasures of Xumishan Caves as soon as possible is a long-held common dream of different generations of archaeologists represented by the Bai League,” said a researcher from the Ningxia Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology.

“In addition to the entire Xumishan archaeological team, this report also incorporated the valuable contributions of frontline field archaeologists in Yungang Caves, Longmen Caves, Kizil Caves, Maijishan Caves and the Dazu caves. He also received useful advice from academics in the archaeological community and experts from local museums, ”said LI Zhirong, vice director of the Cultural Heritage Institute of Zhejiang University and one of the chiefs. leader of the Xumishan archaeological project.

The Xumishan Caves are geographically important. Since ancient times, it has been a transportation hub and a strategic site connecting the central plains with the Hexi Corridor and the southern and northern regions of the Gobi Desert. With the advent of the Silk Road, it has become a must-see on the northern route of the eastern part of the Silk Road. This convenient geographic access enabled the formation of the largest Buddhist temple complex in northwest China, which occupies a central position in the development of cave culture in China.

The stone statues of Xumishan Caves are distinguished by their various shapes and exquisite carving skills. Most striking is the statue of Maitreya Buddha sitting at the entrance to Mount Xumi. As the largest statue in Xumishan Caves, it becomes the hallmark of Mount Xumi. Carved out of a horseshoe cave, it is remarkably imposing with a solemn allure.

Archaeological report telling the fascinating story of 1,500 years ago

Archaeological reports have long been at the center of archaeological research and heritage conservation.

“Archeology is a multidisciplinary and inclusive subject, involving a wide range of fields, such as history, archeology, architecture, philosophy, religion, art and paleography,” said SUN Yingmin , Director of the ICOMOS China Caves Committee.

The Archaeological Report on Yuanguang Temple in Xumishan Caves aims to document the archaeological findings of Xumishan Caves in an objective, faithful and comprehensive manner, thus providing academics with an ocean of reliable first-hand information. On this basis, a database on the Xumishan Caves will be established.

This far-reaching archaeological report is truly phenomenal, each page telling the fascinating story of 1,500 years ago.

According to the report, there are 14 caves in Yuanguang Temple. Caves 45 and 46, located on the second floor of the main hall, are the most magnificent in the temple. They also house the most surviving statues of Mount Xumi. Cave 45 is large, with a total depth of 6 meters and a height of 4.1 meters. Although subject to constant wind erosion, more than 40 statues, ranging from 1.8 meters to 2.5 meters in height, have survived intact. These statues are valuable works of art for the study of statuary under the Northern Dynasty.

The report is teeming with elaborate works like this one. Each of them is original and priceless.

“The archaeological study and excavation of cave temples and compilation of the report not only lays the foundation for the study of cave temples, but also injects a wealth of information into different fields of study,” SUN said. Yingmin.

The report is, so to speak, an encyclopedia documenting the past and present of the Yuanguang Temple Caves archaeological site. It is also an exquisite parchment featuring a panoramic view of superbly outstanding sculpture art and a guide providing researchers and visitors with detailed information about the caves of Yuanguang Temple.

Archeology and digital technology

The wide application of digital technology is the defining feature of the archaeological excavation of Xumishan Caves and the report.

“This report adopts archaeological research methods, in particular the subtle use of digital gauging and mapping technology, which greatly improves the accuracy of mapping and provides a detailed account of all repair and restoration work,” observed SONG Xinchao, director of the National Administration of Cultural Heritage.

Xumishan’s archaeological team experimented with the fusion of archeology and computer technology. “It’s far from being a ‘1 + 1’ thing by combining cave archeology and computer technology. How to develop, improve and adapt computer technology in archaeological research? This poses a huge challenge for us, ”said XU Duanqing, director of the Computer Basic Teaching Center at Zhejiang University and one of the leaders of the Xumishan Archaeological Project.

To support the Xumishan archaeological project, Zhejiang University has set up a team dedicated to the digitization of cultural remains. “We used photogrammetry, upgraded it bit by bit and tried to integrate laser scanning with photogrammetry in order to achieve greater accuracy in recording details and textures,” DIAO said. Changyu, vice director of the Cultural Heritage Institute of Zhejiang University.

In 2020, they took a step forward in building and using a large-scale computing platform.

“These changes are driven by the need for archaeological excavation of the Xumishan Caves,” DIAO Changyu said.

“Our work is always on the ground. New technologies are what human hands and feet are to our work. It is a valuable empowerment tool, ”said LI Zhirong.

Source: translated from Guangming Daily

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