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Archaeological Work in Hong Kong

Archaeological studies in Hong Kong first began in the 1920s when artefacts and other evidence of human activities were unearthed at numerous coastal sites, mostly on outlying islands. These significant finds bear witness to events in Hong Kong’s history spanning more than 6,000 years.

During these formative years in the 1920s, archaeological investigations were mainly undertaken by a few keen amateurs, in particular Dr Charles Heanley (1877-1970), Professor Joseph Shellshear (1885-1958), Father Daniel Finn (1886-1936), Mr Walter Schofield (1888-1968) and Mr Chen Kung-che (1890-1961). It was not until the mid-1950s, however, when the University Archaeological Team, forerunner to today’s Hong Kong Archaeological Society, was founded, that archaeological work was performed on an increasingly larger and well-organised scale. The 1970s saw the government become more involved in heritage conservation, and its growing support for action in this field ultimately led to the enactment of the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance (Cap. 53), which prohibits unlicensed archaeological excavations. The government also established the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) in 1976 to enforce the provisions of the ordinance, which call, among other things, for the preservation of Hong Kong’s heritage. Two government-commissioned territory-wide archaeological surveys were conducted, the first from 1983 to 1985 and the second from 1997 to 1998, to assess the potential value of all archaeological sites already identified in Hong Kong as well as to record new ones. Recruiting more professionally trained archaeologists, the government began to play a more active role in the rescue and preservation of Hong Kong’s heritage, something that is exemplified by the rescue excavations at Yung Long (1992-1993), Tung Wan Tsai North (1997), Sha Ha (2001-2002) and So Kwun Wat (2000-2001 and 2008-2009).

Archaeological sites are often threatened by infrastructure projects and urban expansion in the form of housing developments. In keeping with worldwide practice, the AMO favours the conservation of archaeological heritage with the in-situ preservation of archaeological remains as the first priority. Rescue excavations are regarded as the very last resort and can be recommended only where there are strong justifications for this course of action.

The AMO is actively involved in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) initiated in the planning of infrastructure projects and development proposals. Archaeological investigations have to be carried out as a compulsory part of cultural heritage impact assessments to devise mitigation measures to protect Hong Kong’s invaluable archaeological heritage. A number of archaeological investigations and excavations have already been conducted by project proponents under the AMO’s guidance in development areas of potential archaeological significance.

While the EIA mechanism applies to development projects in Hong Kong specified under the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance, the Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) is an internal administrative procedure of the government that requires assessments to be conducted where necessary on all new capital works projects. Under this HIA, the project proponents and relevant works departments have to consider whether the implementation of the project will affect ‘heritage sites’, which include declared or proposed monuments, sites and buildings graded by the Antiquities Advisory Board, sites of archaeological interest or government historical sites identified by the AMO. Please see http://www.heritage.gov.hk/en/impact/index.htm for more details.

In accordance with the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance (Cap. 53), a licence to excavate and search for antiquities must be obtained before any project of this kind is commenced. For more information on licence applications, please see:

Application to obtain a Licence to Excavate and Search for Antiquities

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