University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Autumn 2002

Unearthing Past Glories

Archeologists find the "story behind the fact"

Digging up the sand and dirt under the blazing sun for weeks on end, driven by a desire to unearth priceless artifacts of ancient times – that’s the kind of dream that drew Chen Shen (PhD 1997) to archaeology. But it’s what comes after, when the object is dusted off and brought back to the lab, that sustains his passion for his work.

Finding a fragment of history, a “fact,” is just the beginning of the adventure, Shen says. “Archeologists find the story behind the fact.” It’s sophisticated detective work with a social purpose, he says. Every society, at one point in its evolution, wants to know – and see – what came before. “The past must be there for people.”

As the Bishop White Curator of Far Eastern Art at the Royal Ontario Museum, Shen is currently telling a story about Chinese history. He is co-curator of the exhibition Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan (Aug. 3 to Nov. 10, 2002), featuring almost 200 artifacts from a previously unknown Bronze Age society in southwestern China. Before these objects were uncovered in 1986, the accepted wisdom was that the Sichuan province was a cultural backwater compared with central China. “We are still digging for answers” about this unexpected treasure, he says. It’s a job that goes well beyond spades and shovels.

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