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Unearthing ancient Chinese messages

Connie Cook is developing a database that will enable scholars worldwide to better study ancient political and economic systems.

Long before databases in arts and sciences became a reality, Connie Cook took a personal interest in the concept.

"As a grad student in the 1980s, I'd done research in petroglyphs (prehistoric carvings on rocks) around the world, and quickly concluded that the only way to view and analyze the massive corpus was through a database," says Cook, an associate professor of modern languages at Lehigh and director of the Asian Studies program.

Now deeply immersed in the study of ancient Chinese excavated texts, or the words inscribed on unearthed, ancient artifacts, Cook is applying that concept to a multi-year project of cataloging and analyzing vast amounts of material remains discovered in China in order to create a bilingual, Web-based database.

Working in cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, she is seeking funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities to create the vehicle that will allow scholars worldwide to answer questions regarding ancient political and economic systems not accessible through historical documents.

Through this process, Cook and her colleagues can, in effect, rewrite -- or at least amend -- the history of the studied eras.

"When you look at excavated texts, you don't just deal with the words," she says. "You have to deal with the object it is written on, the archaeological context of that object, and then start looking at the social context as reflected by material culture."

This approach runs counter to the traditional study of history through transmitted texts that were written hundreds of years later and then edited over time.

"I started looking at 20 years of research, and how written history and archaeological history compare or contrast," she says. "You see two different viewpoints on a single age that can either radically contradict or randomly support each other.

"Historians tend to pick through the material record to support the official transmitted version. The glorious heroes of the histories don't necessarily pan out when you look at the archaeological record."

Cook's "Names and Vessels" database will initially include bronze vessels with inscribed name signs that were discovered in tombs across present-day China, but date to 11th to mid-8th centuries BCE, a period long considered the grand beginning of a golden age by Confucian scholars and claimed as the ideal model for political institutions and the imperial state.

"The analysis of material culture from the founding of the Zhou civilization is particularly critical since historical sources tend to mythologize this era," says Cook, who is writing a book that focuses on the evolution of "eulogy" in lengthier, inscribed ceremonial records.

Cook is taking over the mantle of Dr. Noel Barnard of Australia, a world-renowned expert on ancient Chinese bronzes, by embedding this database within Barnard's larger database on ancient metals. George Motter and Lehigh's Library and Technology Services team will use the smaller database as a design model that could later be expanded to include ceramics, stone, and organic materials.

The database also involves Lehigh professors Bruce Hargreaves, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, and Michael Notis, professor of materials science and engineering. Hargreaves will coordinate the GIS mapping aspect of the database and Notis directs Lehigh's internationally known archaeometallurgy lab.

All the information will be available in English and Chinese -- two of the most spoken languages in the world. It's a cooperative project between people in China, Australia, and the U.S. The site will be designed at Lehigh, and the collection of data will occur both in the United States and China.

Cook hopes the project will generate international interest so that it can continue to grow and link to similar databases that might be generated elsewhere or in cooperation with the Lehigh-maintained database.


--Linda Harbrecht

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Fall 2005

Posted on Monday, October 17, 2005

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