‘In front there is a Red Bird followed by a slow-moving Turtle at the rear to the left is the Azure Dragon and to the right a White Tiger’.
Sounds appropriately mystical and treasure-huntey right? Exactly the type of clue your favourite pop culture archaeologist would be following right?
This quote is from the Li Ji or Book of Rites. It is one of the Five Classics of the Confucian Canon and was written around 213 BC and describes the social forms, governmental system and ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC).
One of the topics this book covers is Geomancy, or the art of placing or arranging buildings on sites auspiciously. According to the Li Ji, where you should establish a settlement should be dictated by these features. The Phoenix should be to the south catching the sun. A source of water nearby. The Tortoise, Dragon and Tiger all providing shelter from prevailing winds, giving shelter and privacy to the settlement.
Let’s skip forward about 2200 years to the Snowy Mountains in NSW. Kiandra is a now abandoned town that is located on the Snowy Mountains Highway between Tumut and Adaminaby. The town owes its existence to the discovery of gold at Pollock’s Gully in 1860. For a broad history of the town have a look at the website of the Kiandra Historical Society. Today all that is left are a few buildings and a massive archaeological landscape (tips on how to read such a landscape will form the topic of a future post). Jennifer Hewitson was previously the Historic Heritage Project Coordinator, Kiandra Heritage Precinct and has put together some awesome albums on Kiandra past and present.
By the end of 1860 the population of Kiandra had risen to 7000 people, 10% of which were Chinese. The rush was short and sharp and within 3 years the town had a population of only 650 people. Of these over half were Chinese, reflecting their ongoing success on the goldfields of NSW at that time.
There had always been tensions between European and Chinese miners in the colony, the most notorious event being on the night of 30 June 1861 when about 2000 Europeans drove the Chinese out of their camp at Lambing Flat destroying tents and looting possessions. Back at Kiandra, the good and Christian folk of the town did not want the Chinese camped too close to them, so an initial camp was moved by order of the Gold Commissioner to a location further away from the township.
Only three contemporary newspaper records of the location of the new Chinese Camp survive from the time. These are that the camp was to the ‘east of the township sheltered under the brow of a small hill’, ‘on the hill fronting the government camp on the eastern side of the gully’ and ‘about half a mile down river’.
Exactly where this settlement was located was not known for sure. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that, Lindsay Smith, a Masters student at the Australian National University began the search for the Chinese at Kiandra that the exact location was found. Lindsay’s thesis on identifying Chinese ethnicity in the archaeological record is titled Cold Hard Cash. What is really interesting is how Lindsay found the settlement. He went back to first principles. How did the Chinese like to establish their settlements? They wanted to have a water source where the sun came from (Red Phoenix) (south in the northern hemisphere, north in the southern). A strong protective back (Dark Tortoise) with undulating hills to the west and east (Green Dragon and White Tiger). Using these parameters Lindsay started to look for likely places for the settlement, combined with the information contained in the newspaper accounts he found the lost Chinese settlement of Kiandra (well not completely lost, just a little misplaced).
This picture from Jennifer Hewitson shows an outcrop of rock about a kilometre from the Snowy Mountains Highway. This is the Dark Tortoise behind which the Chinese settlement was located. The principles set out in a book written in 213 BC helped define a perfect place for the camp. A rocky outcropping behind the settlement; protected from prevailing winds by small hills to the east and west; access to its own water and capitalising on the winter sun to the north(ish). Figure 2 in this article by Lindsay shows a plan of the Chinese settlement, the large rock outcropping is the same as in Jennifer’s photo. Obviously the real world doesn’t always match people’s pre-established ideas of how it should work so what we see is a best fit of the ideal on the actual.
The quote that I used at the beginning of this post is actually applicable to real world archaeology, not just treasure hunting movies. Of course in the real world the language would look something like this:
If looking for the ideal place for a Chinese settlement in rural Australia look for somewhere north facing with its own water source. Protected from prevailing winds on the sides and at the rear. Look for somewhere comfortable and private.
I know that it is accurate and prosaic. And that is really how archaeology really works. But sometimes it’s good to have the excitement, the romance, the gest.
So come seeker of treasures. That which you wish to find is hidden by the great shell of the Dark Tortoise. It is guarded by the Azure Dragon and White Tiger. When you reach the Red Phoenix it will show you your goal.
Since we are on the subject of fictional archaeology this is my favorite scene from the Indiana Jones movies.
Coming up next on Heritage Gest….
Mount Panorama or Spooner’s Repression Delief Scheme