‘Hong Kong has no archaeology’, ‘Hong Kong is a “Cultural Desert”’– these are the sayings I got from my peers and my old acquaintance time after time. Earlier in 2021, one ex-museum colleague said to me: ‘You will fail to find anything about Hong Kong’s archaeology – because there is nothing here.’
I said, ‘There are lots of discoveries in Hong Kong, and I will make sure people see them now.’
Hong Kong is not always a concrete jungle; and this Fragrant Harbour owns a history that goes beyond its colonial past. Neolithic pottery sherds, stone adzes, bronze swords, and arrow heads have been identified through years of land-based archaeological survey in the shoreside of Hong Kong. These discoveries in the past decades demonstrates that Hong Kong is an active littoral area with prehistoric activities.
Growing Interests in Hong Kong archaeology
As a local Hongkongese, it has come to my attention that there has been a growing interest from the public in the tracing of Hong Kong’s archaeology. The most recent cases are the demolishing of the Bishop Hill Reservoir in December 2020, which was abruptly halted and sparked huge social outrange. The salvaging of the controversial archaeological remains in Sung Wong Toi (Antiquities and Monument Office, 2017, and updated in 2021) has also gained much attention upon the opening of the Sung Wong Toi station a few months back. This recent surge of interests in Hong Kong’s cultural and archaeological significance is a multifaceted phenomenon: the greater access of digital resources in the tracing of Hong Kong history, the increasing interest in Hong Kong terrestrial relics due to the travel bans/ pandemic, as well as the changing political dimensions which lead to a rapid alteration of how the public learn and think of Hong Kong cultural heritages.
This short article is an attempt to retrace the history of archaeology in Hong Kong. This is to be done through reviewing the available literatures and the author’s limited experience in Hong Kong archaeology. It must be emphasized, however, that there are scarce numbers of publications, or publicly accessible government data, field reports, survey logs and commercial investigative writings that can aid us to systematically organize the chronological timeline of the development of Hong Kong archaeology. This scarcity of formal literatures means that the construing of the landscape of Hong Kong archaeology is likely, if not completely, fragmentary.
Where does Hong Kong archaeology start?
Mecham (1980 and 2009), followed by Peacock and Nixon in 1988, refer the start of archaeology in Hong Kong to Doctor Charles Montague Heanley’s ‘leisure hiking trip’ in the New Territories in 1926. However, the author believes that such a saying is highly contested and there needs to be a more solid ground, so-called a more official benchmark, when it comes to identifying the beginning of Hong Kong archaeology.
Earliest Papers on Hong Kong archaeology in 1928
It is therefore more beneficial to refer to the earliest papers written and published specifically on Hong Kong archaeology – which originated in 1928.
There were two articles in 1928, one was written by reputed Chinese geologist Prof Yuan Fuli（1893-1987, 袁復禮）, who also taught in Peking University and Tsinghua University, under the titled ‘Review of Hong Kong Neolithic Collection’, whereas the other was by Heanley, Head of the government Vaccine and Bacteriological Department, entitled ‘Hong Kong Celts’.
It is worth highlighting that both articles were published in the same Bulletin of the Geology Society of China, both published in Beijing, and both are published at the exact time in 1928; but most English-writing academic articles tend to only refer to Heanley’s work and regarded this as the first article on Hong Kong’s archaeology. This, if we are to conjecture the reason behind the omission of Prof Yuan Fuli’s essay, could be related to the problems of what I called ‘colonial residuals’, where some foreign scholars were reluctant in crediting ethnically-Chinese scholars in their contribution to the earliest work of Hong Kong archaeology.
First Government-funded excavation in Hong Kong
In 1932, Prof Joseph Shellshear（1885-1958）, Chair of Anatomy at the University of Hong Kong（1923–1936）and a collector of old human fossils and stone artefacts, co-authored with Heanley ‘Contribution to the Prehistory of Hong Kong and New Territories’, describing the details of their collected artefacts that were discovered around the New Territories（Mecham, 2009:13）. From 1933 to 1934, the first government-funded salvaging excavation was led by Father Daniel Finn（1886-1936）, a Jesuit Priest, at Tai Wan, Lantau Island and the results of these excavations were published in Hong Kong Naturalist. His manuscripts and field reports were rearranged and then published in the 1958. His collection was later donated to the Fung Ping Shan Museum at the University of Hong Kong and City Hall Museum. Between 1933 -1937, MrWalter Schofield（1888-1968）surveyed more than 100 terrestrial prehistoric sites and in 1937, his most celebrated report, ‘The Proto-Historic Site of the Hong Kong Culture at Shek Pik, Lantau, Hong Kong’ was published （HKAS, 1975）. This recorded the discovered items in great details and is much treasured because the artefacts were then lost during wartime（Mecham, 2009: 21）.
In 1938, the Chinese historian, calligrapher, and archaeologist Chen Kung-che（1890-1961）（or ‘Chan Kung-jit’, 陳公哲）moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong and started his first self-funded 10-month intensive survey and excavations in Hong Kong. Over 10 sites were investigated, with more than 300 artefacts recovered（Hong Kong Museum of History, 2011）. In 1952, Chen published his findings in multiple pamphlets, and later published further details in the reputed Chinese Journal in Archaeology, ‘Kao-gu-xue-bao’（Chinese: 考古學報）. His work was mostly lost during wartime, hence many English-writers tend to undermine his contribution to the Hong Kong archaeological landscape.
From the 50s to 60s: Hong Kong University Archaeological Team
In 1953, the death of Father Raphael Maglioni（1891-1953）, who moved from mainland China to Hong Kong in 1946 for missionary work, left his archaeological collection from eastern Guangdong to the Hong Kong Government. He was said to be the first person to start using carbon-14 dating in Hong Kong and arguably in the whole of China. Also in 1953, the Department of Geography and Geology at the University of Hong Kong（HKU）formed the ‘Geography, Geology and Archaeological Society’, headed by Professor S.G. Davis.
In 1956, HKU Department of Chinese hosted one of the most publicised local excavations in Lei Cheng Uk led by Professor F.S. Drake. Because of this discovery in Kowloon west, the University Archaeological Team at HKU was established in March 1956 by the Institute of Oriental Studies, with members coming from various HKU Departments. From its establishment until 1965, the Team revisited some sites discovered by pre-war archaeologists／collectors and published work on Man Kok Tsui, Shek Pik, and more.
Late 60s and the beginning of Hong Kong Archaeological Society
Hong Kong archaeology started to boom after the reformation of the University Archaeological Team. It has transformed into the current day Hong Kong Archaeological Society (HKAS), officially inaugurated in 1967. The establishment of the Antiques and Monument Office (AMO) and its related Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance in 1976 is also.
Between 1984 and 1986, five volumes of the Reports on the Hong Kong Archaeological Survey were completed by Peacock. These were not formally published but are now available at AMO and HKU（also see AMO, 1988）. The Chinese University of Hong Kong（CUHK）also initiated their Chinese Archaeology and Art Research Team in 1987. Between 1977 and 1987, important excavations were done in area such as Sham Wan, Tonglong Chau, Pui O, Tung Wan and Tai Wan（Shang and Ng 2010, p.8-9, 71-90）.
Salvage excavations became more common between 1988 and 1998, revealing finds such as Ming-blue-and-white-porcelain and ceramics from the Song, Tang and Han dynasty, as well as fine pottery from Thai and Khmer at the shoreside of Penny’s Bay (1991), the Middle to Late Neolithic Site at Black Point in Deep Bay (1993), Bronze Age artefacts, shell midden and Han deposits at the sand bar in Ma Wan (1994), or the Neolithic Site at Sha Ha (1995), Ma Wan Tong Wan North Site (1996), Yong Long Site (1997). These excavations were conducted because of infrastructural development for new highways, new towns, power plants and the international airport. Apart from report writing, HK started to co-organize academic conferences from 1992 to 1995 (four conferences) that involved HK archaeology as their subject of discussion. This is also the period immediately preceding the returning of the sovereignty.
Post-1997 and the EIA mechanism: Commercial Archaeology
After the inauguration of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in July 1997, AMO commissioned 12 teams in the second full-scale archaeological survey of Hong Kong, which was a massive regional survey executed by museum experts, institutional researchers, and university archaeologists from the mainland China and from the UK. In 1998, Hong Kong established the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance (on Archaeology) which has become the basis of developing and professionalizing commercial archaeology in Hong Kong. Thereafter this point, most of the writings about Hong Kong archaeology is mainly circulated by AMO. Some accidental discoveries are made through the EIA – a mechanism built not primarily for the research and preservation of archaeological remains (the issue with EIA is beyond the scope of this essay).
To quickly summarize the essay, the development of Hong Kong archaeology has been heavily reliant on salvaging and seldom solely for research purposes. Most recent discoveries, such as Song Wong Toi（discovered in 2014 and further in 2017）, Bishop Hill Reservoir（discovered in December 2020）, the suspected Historic Underground Tunnel near the University of Science and Technology（discovered in May 2021）, and the Kowloon Customs Boundary Stone（discovered in April 202）, these discoveries were mostly the results of urban planning projects or accidental public discoveries. It is also relevant to understand how archaeological discoveries in Hong Kong influence the construction of a Hong Kong narrative／identity – it is one that go far beyond colonial times, and one that entertains the idea that Hong Kong possesses its self-generating economic and cultural competence whilst closely connected to surrounding Chinese culture and Southeast Asian regions.