UPDATE: New Artifacts Found in Condemned Xindian Cemetery

UPDATE: New Artifacts Found in Condemned Xindian Cemetery
James X Morris

What you need to know

Xindian First Public Cemetery is the last flat-land cemetery left in the Taipei basin, but is in the process of being demolished.

Researchers conducting an informal audit at Xindian First Public Cemetery in Taiwan's New Taipei City have uncovered important archaeological artifacts which help build a biography of Xindian District's Qing Dynasty and Japanese period residents.

The audit occurs at a critical time for the cemetery, which is in the process of being exhumed and bulldozed to make room for a controversial urban renewal project. Protests, formal complaints to Taiwan's central government, and the possible loss of protected stones have all contributed to a temporary moratorium on demolition.

Newly discovered are texts dating to the Qing Dynasty and the earliest settlers of the Taipei Basin, written and inscribed on the inner lids of ossuary jars (clay jars that contain the remains of the deceased) that have been exhumed by the city's demolition contractors.

"The information on the jars tells us biographical information about the people buried in the tombs including the dates of their death, while the tombstones tell us about the tomb and the surviving family," Dr. Oliver Streiter of National Kaohsiung University told The News Lens in a phone call. Typically, researchers have only been able to collect historical information about the tombs and families. Streiter added: "Being able to read about the people from the lids now gives us a more complete story of Xindian."

Demolition of the cemetery began on Feb. 28, 2018, a public holiday. Ironically it is the destruction of Xindian First Public Cemetery that is giving it more recognition and is allowing researchers to learn more about the area's history.

Destruction of the cemetery had been halted following a showdown involving various preservationist interests that had occurred on the second day of demolition work, March 1. Preservationists are concerned that historical tombs listed for protection with the city's culture department had been destroyed by demolition machinery on the first day of work in February.

Cultural authorities from Taiwan's central government were contacted by New Taipei-based activist Wu Bowei, who used Taiwan's cultural assets preservation law to file for a cessation of the cemetery's destruction in mid-February. He announced a protest for March 1 when the demolition had begun without a formal government review

"The historical value of the cemetery is very important for residents of Xindian, including the history of Xindian's development, family migration, and settlement. It is important to preserve the spirit and dignity of Xindian here," he said.

James X Morris
A lid dating to the Japanese period, 1931.

Preservationists have been wary of promises made by officials in New Taipei City, in particular the promise to develop the cemetery into a local park in 2016 during the initial destruction of some 3,000 tombs. Preservationists later learned that the New Taipei City Economic Development Department, the department which controls the land, had no intention of building a park, and had slated the entire site for an industrial cluster.

Xindian First Public Cemetery is the last flat-land cemetery left in the Taipei basin, as all others have been removed for urban renewal projects. The hills surrounding Taipei and New Taipei City are dotted with tombs, but Xindian has the greatest concentration of ancient tombs and tombstones in the region.

Central government cultural inspectors will visit the cemetery on Wednesday, March 7, for a review as a result of Wu's petition. The newly-discovered artifacts may help push for greater awareness of the importance of Taiwan's ancient cemeteries, and preservationists are hopeful that this new archaeological find will compel the city and central government authorities to allow an academic survey of the site to be conducted.

None of the cemeteries that are destroyed in Taiwan have ever been given a thorough academic survey in which archaeologists and historians are able to collect data before these heritage sites are demolished," Streiter said.

Researchers and preservationists are hopeful that the recognition of the new inscriptions on the ossuary jars will prompt authorities to halt demolition to allow for a proper archaeological survey.

There will be two tours of the cemetery with the central government cultural authorities tomorrow, March 7. The first will be at 10:00 a.m., the second at 2:00 p.m. Xindian First Public Cemetery is located on Baogao Road in Xindian District, New Taipei City.

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TNL Editor: Morley J Weston