CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 1, March 2005


Briefs | China Heritage Quarterly


Unequivocal evidence of the existence of the Xia dynasty, now firmly equated with Erlitou culture, still eludes Chinese archaeologists, but over the past two years archaeologists from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) have been conducting ongoing excavations at the transitional late Erlitou culture walled city site in Yanshi, Henan province. The most recent work at the site, which covers approximately 108,000 sq m, has focused on the excavation of part of the city wall within the four boundary roads that enclose the rectangular city site, as well as turquoise and bronze smelting workshops. Two sets of palace foundations have been identified, but the discovery of two-wheeled vehicle tracks at the site does not necessarily indicate that the two-wheeled chariot was known in China during the Xia dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BCE). Excavations continue at this important early urban site, but no evidence has been found of any dramatic events signalling the shift from the Xia to the Shang dynasty.

In February 2005 Professor Liu Xu of Peking University's School of Archaeology and Museology claimed that the large Wangchenggang city site located near Dengfeng in Henan province was probably the ruins of Yangcheng, the capital of King Yu, founder of the Xia dynasty. The walled and moated city site covering 300,000 sq m was excavated between 2002 and 2004 by a joint team composed of archaeologists from Peking University and the Henan Provincial Archaeology Institute, and led by Liu Xu.


In February 2005 archaeologists from the Inner Mongolia Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute made public their discovery of new rock art sites in the Yinshan mountains. They describe the images as depicting scenes of hunting and worship, which they say are between one and two millennia old.


In January 2005 the Ningbo Municipal Culture Relics and Archaeology Institute presented the preliminary results of their four-month excavation of a 725 sq m site attributed to early neolithic Hemudu culture. Located in Fujiashan, within the municipal jurisdiction of Ningbo, the 7,000 year old site is described as the largest and best preserved settlement of Hemudu culture, apart from the Hemudu site itself. The Fujiashan site is 20 km from the Hemudu site and 5-6 km from another recently discovered Hemudu culture site, the Tianluoshan site. The Fujiashan settlement documents the Hemudu shift from a mobile hunter and gatherer culture to a settled life of farming and raising livestock.

The discovery of crossbeams testifies to the use of the tenon in carpentry. Artefacts found at the site include more than 470 pieces of earthenware pottery many with patterns, these being some of the earliest Hemudu examples. The most striking finds were an eagle's head carved from ivory and an eagle-shaped earthenware item that may have had votive significance.


In January 2005 the Guangxi Region Cultural Relics Archaeology team announced the discovery of a neolithic stone tool processing site, estimated to be 7,000 years old, at Beidaling in Du'an Yao Autonomous County. This is the largest site of this type discovered in China to date. Tens of thousands of finished and unfinished stone tools were found at the site, estimated to have been active for a century before it was abandoned.


The ruins of the Tang dynasty Daming Palace in Xi'an have been excavated seasonally since the mid 1990s. In January 2005 the leader of the present team, Guo Gongqiang, who since 2001 has been working jointly with Japan's National Institute for Cultural Properties of Nara, reported the discovery of the remains of the largest Tang garden found to date. Centred on the lined and landscaped lake identified as the Taiyechi of the Tang histories, the garden will provide valuable material for study of early Chinese concepts of landscape gardening. The archaeologists have identified Penglai Island, once surrounded according to accounts by 400 corridors, as well as another unidentified island, a waterside pavilion and a large corridor and court complex on the southern shore of the lake.


In the course of excavating a relatively large neolithic settlement site estimated to cover 30,000 sq m at Beifudi in Yixian county, Hebei province, a team of archaeologists from the Hebei Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute unearthed what they believe to be votive bas-relief masks used by the inhabitants some 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. The masks have been identified as representing the faces of humans, monkeys, pigs and felines, and they range in size from that of a human face to 10 cm high miniatures. The foundations of ten semi-subterranean dwellings have been excavated at the site.


At a conference organised by CASS in January 2005 Xu Xinmin, head of an archaeology team of the Zhejiang Provincial Archaeology Institute, presented the result of the team's excavation of a large Liangzhu culture cemetery located at Zhuangqiaofen in the suburbs of Pinghu, Zhejiang province. The site with 236 graves covering 2,000 sq m and dating back 4,000 to 5,300 years is the largest grave site of the neolithic Liangzhu culture discovered to date. Pottery, stone, bone and jade artefacts have been found. The excavation began in 2003.The graves at the site are densely concentrated, and there is evidence of the mortuary sacrifice of dogs and pigs. The earliest example in China of a stone plough with a wooden base was unearthed at the site. The plough is 1.06 m in length and its size indicates that it was ox-drawn. Further excavations will be conducted at the site, where large residential and farming areas have been identified.


In December 2004 the Chengdu Archaeology Team reported further exciting finds at the Jinsha ritual site of Shu culture in Chengdu city during the ongoing second phase of excavation. Of great interest is a timber carved and brightly painted head estimated to be 3,000 years old. The head is 80 cm in length, and its modelling recalls that of the elongated bronze masks found at the Sanxingdui site. The relationship between the Sanxingdui and Jinsha Shu culture sites is still being revealed. At both sites what are described as "sacrificial pits" have been discovered.


In December 2004 archaeologists who have been excavating the ruins of the Epang Palace of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang, located outside Xi'an, reported that there is no evidence that the palace was ever completed and only a front hall has been discovered. This puts paid to Sima Qian's account in Shi ji (Historical Records) of Xiang Yu burning the palace to the ground in the massive uprising that terminated the short-lived Qin dynasty.


In December 2004 archaeologists from the Xi'an Archaeology Institute reported the discovery of a Western Han dynasty tomb with colour painted murals in the grounds of the Xi'an University of Technology. The paintings depict the familiar genre scenes of a procession of carriages and hunting trips, and scenes in which the tomb occupant is a central figure. The ceiling of the tomb is decorated with illustrations of heavenly bodies and divine creatures. Eight Han dynasty tombs with painted murals have been discovered in China to date, and this is the sixth example found in Shaanxi. Most Han dynasty tombs in northern China have carved illustrative decoration.

A number of tombs with murals have been discovered over the past two years in the Xi'an area, and this includes a rare Yuan dynasty example. Most Yuan dynasty tombs decorated with murals have previously only been discovered in the north-eastern sweep of territory comprising eastern Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Shanxi, Hebei and Shandong provinces. Few tombs of this type have been found further west, but on 3 October 2003 China Cultural Relics News (CCRN) reported the excavation between July and September 2003 of a well preserved Yuan tomb with murals in Shaanxi province. Located in the eastern suburbs of Xi'an, Shaanxi's capital, the tomb, excavated by the Xi'an Municipal Cultural Relics Preservation and Archaeology Institute, is unusual not only because of its location outside the geographical zone in which tombs of this type are usually found, but also because the murals depict scenes from the lives of the ethnic Han upper classes rather than of the Mongol aristocrats interred in the majority of sumptuously decorated Yuan dynasty tombs. As well as depicting scenes from the lives of a member of the Han elites in the Shaanxi area, the murals also document one of the urban cultural phenomena of the Yuan dynasty - the emergent zaju drama performed on street-side stages or booths (variously termed goulan or washe) erected in urban areas or at banquets in private residences, and the small troupes who played the music (sanyue) that accompanied this theatrical form. One such troupe appears in the murals on the western wall of the passage (yongdao) leading into the tomb chamber.

Murals cover both the eastern and western walls of the entrance corridor, as well as the four walls and arched roof of the main tomb chamber. The closely grouped figures in the paintings are sequentially arranged in parallel positions. The painting style is described by the authors of the CCRN report as "realistic", in contrast with "the literati style of painting" (wenrenhua) becoming popular at the time. The brushwork is described as a dingtou shuwei ("flat-top rat's tail") style that features forceful and flowing lines, used sparingly to delineate the facial features and folds of the garments worn by the figures. However, the floral ornamentation in the murals is finely executed, use is made of dark and rich colours, and the background rocks and bamboo are painted in a manner described as approximating a xieyi ("ideational freehand") style; these elements in the painting reveal that "the folk artisans" who executed the murals were influenced to a limited extent by the contemporary wenrenhua style of painting.

A stone plaque bearing a maidiquan ("necropolitan title deed") text found in the tomb reveals that the tomb owner, surnamed Han, was buried in 1288 with his wife, who had died in 1286, in the conjugal tomb. Maidiquan conventionally record the title of an interred official and the failure of the inscription to include any title suggests that the tomb occupant had never served as an official.


In November 2004 workers in the Yangpu district of Shanghai discovered two Ming dynasty coffins. Archaeologists reported that the bodies in the coffins were well preserved and the coffins contained a number of belts.


A group of 48 ancient graves, dating from the Western Han to the Qing dynasty, was discovered at the site of the planned Wukesong Cultural and Sports Centre, one of the 2008 Olympic venues, in a residential cum commercial area about 20 km west of Tian'anmen Square. The first of two planned excavations covering an area of around 20,000 square meters began in April 2004. Among important discoveries are funerary articles unearthed from two Han dynasty graves.


In November 2004 archaeologists from the Henan Provincial Archaeology Institute and local archaeologists from Pingdingshan completed the assessment of their excavation of two neolithic walled town sites at Puchengdian. The older of the two walled towns uncovered by the excavation which began in July 2004 is identified as belonging to the late neolithic Longshan culture estimated to be around 4,000 years old. A well preserved 5,000 year old pottery kiln was also unearthed. The Puchengdian site, first identified and listed in 1963, is a massive site covering 150,000 sq m and containing material from the neolithic period through to the Han dynasty.


The Hongshan and Xinglongwa neolithic cultures of north-eastern China have distinctive stone architecture and jades which distinguish them from the cultures of the Central Plains area. In mid 2004 archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology of CASS, working at the 8,500 year old Xiaohexi site in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, discovered remains that they have identified as the earliest "civilized site" in north-eastern China. Among the artefacts of this newly designated archaeological culture – Xiaohexi culture – is a pottery model of a human face. Archaeologists unearthed more than 300 artefacts, including pottery mugs and vases, and various bone and stone utensils. They believe the new discoveries at the Xiaohexi site, first discovered in 1987, are the most significant finds for understanding the neolithic cultural profile in north-eastern China since Hongshan culture was identified in the same area. [BGD]