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Shang-Yin Period Archaeology and Shang Urban culture

Archaeological discoveries

Fortune-telling dice

The main source on the basis of which modern researchers reconstruct the history of the early state association of the Shang during its maturity and decline (XIII-XI centuries BC) is the materials found on the site of the ancient settlement near the village of Xiaotun. At the very end of the XIX century. here began predatory excavations of antiquities dealers. As a result, a huge number of bones, which, as it was soon established, were written down the divination formulas of the Shang oracle, were in private and public collections scattered around the world. By the early 20s of the XX century, after the appearance of the works of Luo Zhenyu and Wang Gouwei, it became obvious the great importance of divination inscriptions as a unique historical source for the Shang era, about which there is negligible historical data, which also came down in a very late transmission. Therefore, from 1928 to 1937, and then for a number of years since 1950, systematic excavations were carried out at the Xiaotun settlement and at the nearby burial grounds, which gave significant results.

Turtle shell with inscriptions about the birth of a child

Turtle shell with inscriptions about the birth of a child. Shang Dynasty (c. 1500-1000 BC)

During the first round of excavations, a number of specially constructed pits containing the archives of fortune tellers were explored. In these pits, as well as in other places of the Xiaotun settlement, 24,918 whole and fragmented turtle shields and shoulder blades of large domestic animals, covered with inscriptions, were found. The findings of complete divination texts made it possible to recreate the picture of the divination ritual, helped in deciphering the divination formulas and in dating the inscriptions. In the process of divination, deep depressions were usually made on the inside of the turtle’s shields and on the bull’s shoulder blades and a hot metal rod was inserted into them, causing cracks to appear on the other side. The interpretation of these cracks was the subject of divination.

At the place where the main crack branched off from the side, the scribes, at the order of the diviners, wrote in red or black paint, and then cut out the elements of the divination formula. It usually included a reference to the day of divination, indicated by a combination of two cyclic signs, the name of the diviner, the content of the question and the answer of the oracle, sometimes brief information about whether the prediction came true. In some cases, the divination formula was accompanied by a mention of the month of divination. The materials of the Xiaotun oracle showed that the official specialists in scapulimancy tried to find out the deity’s opinion about sacrifices, military campaigns and hunting expeditions, about the beginning of agricultural work, about the types of crops, about rain, wind and snow, about the arrival of representatives of subordinate tribes, about eclipses of the sun, moon, etc. This list shows that divination texts, if processed using a special technique, can give a lot of valuable information about the Shan ideology, state-administrative organization, social structure, etc.

Excavations of settlements

e. Palace and temple building on a stylobate of rammed earth (reconstruction). The Shang-Yin era. End of the second millennium BC.

e. Palace and temple building on a stylobate of rammed earth (reconstruction). The Shang-Yin era. End of the second millennium BC.

No less important are other discoveries of archaeologists. Already during the first round of excavations in the area of Anyang, it became clear to scientists that the ruins in the bend of the Huan River near the village of Xiaotun were once the capital of the Shang. In the south-eastern part of the settlement, 56 foundations of temple and palace buildings built from rammed earth were excavated. The largest of the discovered platforms reached 85 m in length and 14.5 m in width. On the surface of the platforms, stone supports and traces of pillars have been preserved. During the construction of palace and temple buildings, bronze concave disks with a diameter of 20 cm were sometimes placed on top of these supports. Archaeologists believe that the wooden pillars resting on the supports supported the walls of rammed loess blocks and gable thatched roofs. The studied buildings were arranged in three planned groups. Numerous dugouts and semi-dugouts have been excavated around the palace and temple foundation complexes, which were used for housing maintenance personnel, for storing supplies, and as production facilities. Traces of drainage structures were also found here. Numerous remains of various craft workshops have been excavated.

In 1960-1961, the metallurgical center in Miaopubei was investigated, where artisans ‘ dwellings, fragments of clay crucibles, molds for casting and burials with a set of casting equipment were found. In 1958-1959 and 1971-1973, sites in the southern part of the settlement were excavated, a number of foundations of ancient buildings were uncovered, and numerous ash pits of the Shan period were cleared. In the cultural layer, a large number of divination bones were found — 60 fragments of turtle shields and 4,761 fragments of bull’s shoulder blades covered with inscriptions.

Burial grounds

Interior view of the tomb of Shang Wang. Wuguancun. The Shang-Yin era. End of the second millennium BC.

Interior view of the tomb of Shang Wang. Wuguancun. The Shang-Yin era. End of the second millennium BC.

Several Shang-era burial grounds have been found around Xiaotong. Of particular interest are the tombs of representatives of the ruling Shang family excavated near Sibeigan. A huge number of weapons, ritual utensils, and jewelry were found here both in the central burial chambers, which reached a depth of 12-13 m, and in the special ditches and pits surrounding them. The latter were intended for the burial of chariots and horses, as well as for the numerous servants and soldiers who accompanied the Shang ruler to the afterlife. According to the estimates of one of the participants of the excavations in Sibeigan, the total number of soldiers killed and buried here reached 1000 people. In addition, many individual burials were found around the 10 royal tombs, containing rich sets of burial equipment. According to archaeologists, these graves belonged to those dignitaries from the inner circle of the Shan Van, who were part of the posthumous retinue of their masters. The remains of the sacrificed slaves were buried in the pits. In some cases — only the heads, in others-decapitated bodies.

New discoveries have been made in recent decades. Back in 1950, Wang’s tomb was excavated near the village of Wuguancun. In 1976, a large female burial site was discovered 100 m northwest of Xiaotong, containing bronze utensils with the name and posthumous temple title of the deceased. It turned out that the burial belonged to Wang Wu Ding’s wife. The items found in it are almost contemporary with the items from the tomb in Wuguancong, which allows us to date it to the first period of settlement by the Shang people of the Xiaotun region. Near Wuguancun in 1976. A large area near the royal burials was also uncovered, where 191 sacrificial pits with 1,178 slain slaves were excavated.

Internal structure of the Shan State

MetallurgyThe res

ults of the excavations of the Shan monuments in the area of Anyang indicate the rapid qualitative and quantitative progress of material culture. The analysis of modern archaeological data, which allows us to trace the history of the development of bronze metallurgy over many centuries, confirms that in the Anyang period, as a result of the improvement of casting technology, the improvement of foundry crucibles and molds, the technical capabilities of this leading element of the productive forces of the Shang era increased enormously. In this regard, both in the assortment and in the entire appearance of bronze products of this period, there were serious changes. In large numbers, there were completely new ritual vessels of extremely complicated, bizarre shapes: huge rectangular vessels on four legs, decorated with realistic images of animals, wine vessels in the form of a tiger, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, owl and mythical animals.

The vessel of Simu U ding. Bronze. From the excavations of the Wuguancun burial ground. Anyang. The Shang-Yin era. End of the second millennium BC.

The vessel of Simu U ding. Bronze. From the excavations of the Wuguancun burial ground. Anyang. The Shang-Yin era. End of the second millennium BC.

In the Anyang period, chariots appeared and a whole branch of handicraft production arose for the production of bronze parts of chariot equipment. New types and types of weapons became widespread, and the production of bronze helmets became widespread. How great were the technical capabilities of bronze metallurgy in the Late Shang period, is evidenced by the production of a huge rectangular vessel Simu U ding weighing 875 kg, found in 1939 in the burial ground of Wuguancun. According to modern experts, about 80 foundry crucibles of the Late Shansky type were used at the same time during its casting. It should be noted that the comparison of the chemical composition of the alloy obtained with their help (84.77% Cu, 11.64% Sn, 2.79% Pb) with the composition of Zhengzhou bronze (91.29% Cu, 7.11% Sn, 1.12% Pb) indicates a characteristic increase in the percentage of tin.

The flourishing of bronze metallurgy in the Anyang period and the increase in the range of products of the Shan foundries were accompanied by the spread of Late-Shang-type items on the lands of neighboring tribes and ethnopolitical associations. On the other hand, the expansion of the influence of the Shan state was reflected in the growth of its contacts with the outside world. Knives originating from Central Asia with a pommel in the form of a beast’s head were found in the burials of the Anyang district, and in the Late Shang burial ground near the village of Xingcun in Junxian County, Henan Province, an eye axe and a Central Asian-type pecker were discovered.

Internal and external relations of Shantsev

Within the series of skulls originating from the royal burial ground in Sibeigan, there are serious differences noted by the anthropologists who studied it. The reason is that this series included skulls from the sacrificial pits. As a result, along with the skulls belonging to the local Mongoloids of the North Chinese type, it turned out to contain the skulls of continental and southern Mongoloids. They apparently belonged to prisoners captured in some cases during clashes in the north and northwest, in the area of contact with Central Asian tribes, in others — in the south, where the Proto-Malay population lived.

Chariot with harnessed horses. Wang's tomb. Anyang.

Chariot with harnessed horses. Wang’s tomb. Anyang.

Obviously, as a result of peaceful trade exchanges or as war booty in the wars in the north and northwest, war chariots appear in the Yellow River Valley. They are now found in the area of Anyang in special pits of Late Christian time, associated with the burials of the nobility. Chariots of this time were opened in 1953 near the village of Dasykuntsun, in 1958, 1959 and 1972-near the village of Xiaomintun. A comparison of the prints from the rotted wooden structures of the chariots shows that they were all a cart drawn by a pair of horses with an open body located above the connection of the drawbar with the axle of the wheels. It is very important that their wheels consisted of a rim supported on 22 round spokes. Researchers who have repeatedly addressed the question of the origin of the Late Spanish chariots have noted that in their design features and in the shape of the harness, they resemble similar finds made in other parts of Asia. Anyang chariots were compared with chariots from the barrows of the end of the second millennium BC on the shore of Lake Baikal. Sevan. Carts of the same type as those of Anyan, with thin and strong wheels with a large number of spokes, were discovered in the burials of the middle of the second millennium BC near Sintasht in the area of the city. Chelyabinsk. In the mountains of Mongolia, numerous ancient rock carvings depicting chariots have been discovered, which also resemble Anyang finds. The appearance of chariots and horses in the Yellow River Valley seems to be a natural consequence of the expansion of foreign policy contacts of the Shang state. In itself, this fact did not give rise to far-reaching assumptions. However, it has been used by some Western historians to suggest that the impetus behind the highly developed Shan culture of the Anyang period was the conquest of the Yellow River Valley by warlike tribes fighting in war chariots.

Such an explanation of the progressive changes in the culture of the Shants was dictated not by the content and nature of the factual material, but by the desire to follow the stereotypical fetishization of the moment of conquest, considered as a necessary prerequisite for the creation of civilization and the formation of statehood.

In the light of modern data based on observations of the development of the Shang and related tribes during the Erlitou and Zhengzhou-Erligan periods, their culture appears as the result of the evolution of local achievements, enriched by constant connections and direct contacts with tribes in the south and north of East Asia. The art of the Shan casters of the Anyang period, who mastered new technological techniques, perfected the technique of casting in collapsible clay molds, and mastered the production of a large number of new types and types of bronze products, was a natural consequence of the previous development of bronze metallurgy in the Yellow River Valley. At the heart of such branches of material production of the Shan era as construction, stone-cutting and bone-cutting craft, the manufacture of pottery, which flourished in the Anyang period, were the skills and traditions that developed here in the Eneolithic era.


Agriculture, the foundation of the Shan economy, was also the direct heir to the autochthonous Proto-Chinese culture. Millet was still the main agricultural plant. However, fortune-telling inscriptions also mention areas sown with wheat. One of the names of cereals, found in divination texts related to agriculture, causes controversy among epigraphists. We are talking about the mention of the dao plant in the divination inscriptions. Some researchers believe that this is one of the types of millet, others identify it with soy. Zhang Guangzhi is inclined to see it as evidence of the Shang’s familiarity with rice.

The trenches worked the land with hoe-like and spade-like tools made of wood and stone. As for the bronze shovels found in small numbers on the Middle and Late German monuments, the prevalence of such tools, as well as the possibility of their use in agriculture, raise serious doubts. Sharpened stone sickles embedded in a wooden base were used as reaping tools. In addition to pigs and dogs, domesticated in the Neolithic, the Shants bred buffaloes, horses, and sheep. Neither in the archaeological materials of the Shang era, nor in the divination inscriptions, have yet been found signs of the construction of any irrigation structures.

Urban culture

The most important element of the Shan civilization, which arose in connection with the deepening of the social division of labor, were cities. In the north of East Asia, the germs of urban-type settlements, as already mentioned, appeared in the Eneolithic, but the real cities, which became religious-political, administrative and trade-craft centers, grew only in the Shang era. They were the outposts of the socio-economic development of Shan society, and they primarily reflected changes in its structure, its way of life, its culture and psychology.

A vessel with a leiwen ornament and taote masks. White ceramic. The Shang-Yin era. End of the second millennium BC.

A vessel with a leiwen ornament and taote masks. White ceramic. The Shang-Yin era. End of the second millennium BC.

The study of architectural construction in the Shan cities, during which complexes of large palace and temple structures were discovered in advance, as well as complex tombs, revealed a number of indisputable signs of the formation of a centralized state and a developed religion. During the excavations of the cities, data were obtained that characterize the high level of Shan culture and art. From the cities come written monuments-inscriptions on fortune-telling bones, which serve as the main source of reconstruction of the history of the Shan society.

The content of the concept of “city” is extremely diverse. It includes the socio-economic functions that the city performs in the development of society, the special composition of the urban population, the cultural image of the city, and its role in the social ideology. The symbolization and sacralization of the “city” category are found in the ideological systems of different countries of the world, including in ancient China. The socio-economic background of this phenomenon is that the city separates one part of the population — “citizens” from another – “villagers”, which is quite natural in conditions where the productive forces of society can not be distributed evenly. Hence the inevitable allocation of centers that seem to rise above the rest of society. This has the strongest impact on the set of ideas about the world that are formed in a particular ancient collective, which in terms of content can be defined as its culture.

The city in the cosmological ideas of the ancient Chinese

The data of various ancient Chinese texts provide some material for restoring certain features of the cultural context of the ancient Chinese city in which it existed, and provide some, sometimes very weak, grounds for restoring the meaning that was attached to the city by the carriers of ancient Chinese culture. Early written monuments, such as the song and poetry texts of the Shijing and the inscriptions on ritual bronze vessels that preserve the official manifestos of the first Zhou rulers, the Wangs, contain data on the symbolization and sacralization of the city as a whole and the entire urban material and spatial environment. These monuments reflect the perception of the city as a certain kind of sign system, the elements of which are the city as a whole, its walls, individual buildings — blocks, streets, the entire way of organizing urban space. Their data make it possible to judge to some extent what importance the ancients attached to the city itself, to certain elements of the urban spatial structure.

A ritual knife. Jade, bronze, inlaid with turquoise. The Shang-Yin era. End of the second millennium BC.

A ritual knife. Jade, bronze, inlaid with turquoise. The Shang-Yin era. End of the second millennium BC.

The archaic Chinese city was characterized by attributes associated with the symbolism of the center and the middle. For the Shang, the creators of the first urban civilization of ancient China, it was characteristic of the idea that the center of the human world was the territory inhabited by the Shang, and its center was the “Great City of Shang” or Zhongshan — “Shang, located in the center”. The experience of studying mythological systems shows that the position in the center provided the city, according to the ancients, a special position within the mythical time, because it was in the middle that the process of creation began. The city acted here as a model of the time of creation, the time when all customs, norms, etc. were laid down, the order was set, the following of which in the future is the only condition for the existence of society. The connection between the construction of the city and the structure of society, and therefore, according to the isomorphism inherent in mythological thinking, and the structure of the entire cosmos, is very clearly expressed in the Early Zhou manifestos preserved in the inscriptions on ritual bronze vessels.

Among the meanings attached to the city by the carriers of ancient Chinese culture, it is particularly necessary to highlight its understanding as a mediator and a complex of mediators, as well as its associated functioning as a plastic model of the cosmos. The patterns of beliefs and values that are formed at the stage of the formation of urban civilizations, with the help of which social regulation is carried out, are associated with the space-time described in myths, inhabited by ancestors, heroes and deities. At some point in evolution, the members of an archaic collective raise this source of order above the earth, place it in the heavens. Since in the earthly life it is necessary to constantly relate to the sacred patterns, there is a need for points of contact, in places where heaven meets earth, where the transfer of heavenly sanction to earthly affairs takes place.

Initially, the mediators were natural objects that equally belonged to the earth and the sky — such as tall trees, hills, mountains, etc. Over time, along with the sacralisation of natural points and objects, the sacralisation and creation of artificial mediators begins. In the early ancient Chinese descriptions, the city located in the center of the Middle Kingdom acts as a complex of mediators, which consists of many elements that independently perform the functions of an intermediary. In the Liushi Chunqiu, it is said: “The ancient Wangs determined the center of the Middle Kingdom, everything under the Sky, and erected a palace, determined the center of the palace, and erected a temple.” Since in this scheme the city and the temple located in the city are in the center of the Celestial Empire or the world, and the sky seems to revolve around it, it is the midpoint of heaven and earth. This position of the city indicates its intermediary, transmitting function. Here, according to the ancients, the axis of the world passed, connecting different zones of the mythological universe and performing an intermediary function.

The texts show that the construction of the focus of the urban space-planning environment, the core of the city, which represented the temple-palace complex, was tied to special mediative points of the landscape. In the treatise “Mozi” it is said: “When the holy-wise vanas of the three epochs began to build the capital, to erect the main city, they certainly chose the central hill with an altar for the construction of the temple of their ancestors, they certainly chose the tree with the most lush and dense crown for the erection of an altar [next to it].” Obviously, it was the intermediary function that required the construction of the city temple in such a way that it occupied a spatially and landscape-specific position. The choice of a place with a hill in the center of the city and a tree described in this text clearly indicates this.

In general, the fact of the construction of the city, from the modern point of view, caused by socio-economic needs, apparently, was perceived by the ancients as a special act of creating a cultured, humanized space, as a moment of domestication of the world, initially chaotic, turning in the course of the construction of the city into a symbolically ordered and subject to man, at the moment of creating a sphere of a completely humanized microcosm, establishing order in some part of space. In this context, the form and content of the early ancient Chinese news about the construction of cities becomes clear. Such, for example, as in the ode addressed to the Shen ruler in ” Shijing»:

In the Se, work began for the prince.
The Prince of Shao had enough to worry about.
First he built a rampart around the city,
And the temple with the outbuildings after it was created.

Why was the construction of the city associated here, first, with the construction of a wall or protective rampart, and secondly, with the construction of a temple? The wall was supposed to create a framework for social life, to delimit a zone of ordered space, and the temple was a symbol of controlled space. With the help of these real and at the same time symbolic acts, under the influence of ideas about centrality, the city was integrated into the structure of the universe.

Ancient Chinese cities served as a cosmic reflection of the universe, their spatial structure copied archaic ideas about the structure of the cosmos. There was a kind of inclusion of the world in the boundaries of the city: the sun rose in its east and set in its west at equal distances. In cosmogonic theories, ancient China was located at the center of the universe and occupied a square-shaped territory, so the cities, especially of the late Zhou period, had the shape of a rectangle approaching the square, in terms of orientation to the cardinal directions. The main structures were located on the central south-north axis. As an example, we can mention the old Beijing with the imperial palace in the center: its entrance is oriented to the south, the city has a strictly geometric rectangular layout.

The connection of the ancient Chinese city with cosmological concepts can also be considered from the point of view of the human ability to symbolize. The archaic consciousness is characterized by the belief that the symbol dominates the object, that a thing exists only when it is named, that the possession of the symbol of the object gives the power to influence it. The connection established, for example, between the eastern gate of an ancient Chinese city and the geographical East is the normal connection of a symbol and its object. Consequently, the main purpose of the city as a complex of cosmic symbols was to give the Universe an ordered image, to introduce order in it through the geometrism and measure inherent in the city. The structure of the city reflected the desire to maintain the existing natural and social order by magical means. The ancient Chinese city provides an excellent example of the intersection of spatial and temporal concepts inherent in the archaic consciousness: for example, the northern gate meant not only north, but also winter, and the eastern gate meant not only east, but also spring. The overlapping and overlapping relations of opposition and synonymy that give structure to the picture of the world are manifested in urban symbolism in the fact that parts of the Universe and parts of the city corresponded to certain qualities, natural elements, color classifiers, etc.For example, the city fell into one vertical row with the earth, the middle, the harvest, the yellow color and the taste classifier — sweet. Such a worldview is a remnant of those times when mythology considered all existence-natural and social, all its manifestations as a single whole.

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