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  Field Notes From
China's Shang Culture

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China's Shang Culture On AssignmentArrows

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From Photographer

O. Louis Mazzetenta

China's Shang Culture On Assignment

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From Author

Peter Hessler

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Bronwyn L. Barnes (top) and O. Louis Mazzetenta


China's Shang Culture

Field Notes From Photographer
O. Louis Mazzatenta
Best Worst Quirkiest
    During a project to expand a steel factory in Henan Province, surveyors uncovered the Sipanmu Cemetery, a late Shang burial site at Anyang. I went there to photograph the excavations and was perched on a tall ladder as ancient graves, skeletons, and artifacts were being unearthed. It was pretty amazing to witness these things coming to light after being buried for thousands of years and getting to record them through photography. It gave me a very real sense of the transitory nature of life. I felt that I was doing something important and contributing to our volume of knowledge about the world.

    At a museum in Anyang I spent an entire morning photographing what I thought was the Shang dynasty's largest bronze ding, a cauldron used in the ritual preparation of food for royal ancestors. Because of its size, it was very difficult to shoot. I had to arrange the lighting very carefully using strobes and other special equipment. By lunchtime I was absolutely exhausted. I was just starting to pack up my lights when my interpreter came out from the back room looking nervous. "Lou, I'm very sorry," he said sheepishly. "I just found out that what you've been photographing is not the real artifact but a reproduction." The original was being restored in the lab, and we weren't able to get permission to photograph it.

    Shih Chang-ju was one of the first archaeologists at Anyang during the great discoveries in the 1930s. He escaped from the Japanese when they invaded China in World War II, and later from the Communists when they took over his country. Today he's 100 years old and living in Taiwan. He still goes into his office at the Institute of History and Philology every day and has all his original notes from the excavations.
     I took a lot of pictures of him and was afraid he would get worn out, but he really hung in there. At one point a female assistant started giving him a backrub. He's an old, old man, but that back massage definitely brought a twinkle to his eye.

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