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Archaeological Discoveries During MTR Construction: Balancing Cultural Preservation and Construction Costs

Archaeological Discoveries During MTR Construction: Balancing Cultural Preservation and Construction Costs 

Ancient relics have been discovered during recent MTR construction works, which are likely to make significant contributions to our knowledge of and understanding of Hong Kong’s past.  However, the excavation and the follow up preservation work on construction sites that become important archaeological sites need to be managed carefully in this rapid developing city.  The shortage of land in Hong Kong has already caused intensive argument between preserving the heritage and developing the city. 

The ancient wells found in the MTR construction site causes massive delay of the construction work is an excellent example to demonstrate the conflicts between the economic development and archaeological preservation. Archaeological discoveries, including two complete ancient square wells dated back to Song Dynasty have been found during the construction of the Shatin-Central Link (SCL) of MTR Corp. The work was suspended due to the research and archaeological excavation, which cause the finishing date of the construction expect to delay for at least a year longer than the target; the government would have to pay the contractor millions of dollars in penalties each day (SCMP).

Once relics or artifacts are unearthed during the construction process, the archaeological rescue excavation needs to be carried out immediately because once the artifacts being exposing to the air, the deterioration process begins. Therefore, construction work had to be suspended, until the archaeological excavation and research process is finished. Researchers and experts find, record, and collect new findings and information, and quality finds  enrich the knowledge of Hong Kong’s ancient history and culture. For example the wells found at the MTR sites, together with thousands of artefacts and relics sites, are believed by archaeologists to belong to China’s Song Dynasty, which is an empire of this land about a thousand years ago (SCMP). The cultural value of the discoveries is incredible and cannot be calculated by money. If the site was not developed for the new MTR railway station, those relics and artefacts and the important message behind them would remain buried in dirt forever, however with the construction needing to take place, decisions on the relocation or preservation of the site need to take place promptly to allow projects to progress but also to seize important opportunities to better understand our history and culture.

After the excavation on site, the preservation of the site and changing construction plans can sometimes be necessary, especially if the site is actually the artifacts, such as the old wells in the MTR construction site mentioned. If the wells have to be preserved in situ, then the original design of the station may lead to change. For example, one of the wells found in MTR sites is located within the premise of the To Kwa Wan station and may lead to change or cancellation of the exit that connects Pak Tai Street (SCMP).

As a coin has two sides, archaeological excavation and preservation brings conflicts and problems. These problems are as worth mentioning as the value of the archaeological relics. As mentioned above, the excavation and preservation of the archaeological sites can cause millions of dollars tax money loss every day. Beside this ancient relics discovery, the conflicts between different historical buildings, heritage and construction development of the cities are very common in Hong Kong. Once conflicts occur, construction works are inevitably affected; delay would be one of the most common results.  Once delay occurs, penalties and costs would be demanded by one side to the other. As mentioned above, the MTRC may need to pay millions of dollars penalty to the main contractors every day for genuine out of pocket costs that are incurred from a live site having to stop construction work. Besides of the money issue, the change and redesign of the construction plan, the use of the land (if the preservation is in situ, then the land cannot be used as construction/ other development any more or in the way originally intended) are all causing impacts and demands towards our society not only economically, but also socially.  

The balance between economic development and archaeological and cultural preservation is a big issue and with many archaeological relics buried deep inside the soil, there is always the chance of unexpected finds coming to light that can cause conflicts, delay and unexpected costs that need to be evaluated and managed carefully.  When handled well, Hong Kong can be proud of its care to both respect and preserve the past as well as develop its economic and social future.

Rita Chan
Maxim Recruitment
Hong Kong Office 

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