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The Bronze Age in ancient China II thousand BC.

In the Shandong monuments of the Davenkou culture, and then in the archaeological complexes of a number of regions of China, where the Longshan cultural community became widespread, archaeologists found the first signs of the emergence of property and social inequality within the tribal collectives.

A ritual wine vessel with a taote ornament and a handle in the form of a bird-like dragon.

A ritual wine vessel with a taote ornament and a handle in the form of a bird-like dragon. Bronze. Xiaotun. End of the second millennium BC.

Back in 1930, during excavations at a multi-layered settlement in Hougan near Anyang (Henan province), scientists first drew attention to the genetic relationship between the Eneolithic monuments of the Longshan period found here and the Bronze Age monuments that replaced them. As for the latter, they belonged to the highly developed culture that was discovered by the excavations that began in 1928 at the nearby settlement near the village of Xiaotun.

Inscriptions found in Xiaotong on the shells of turtles and the spatulas of large domestic animals used for divination told that a city was once located here, which was the capital and center of settlement of the Shang people. The Xiaotong culture was called the Shang culture. In the following years, new evidence of continuity between the Longshan and the Shan culture was revealed in the technique of making stone tools, in the funeral rite, and especially in the techniques of making and ornamenting ceramics. However, the presence of a significant cultural and chronological gap between the complexes of the late Longshan and the Shan monuments from the area of Anyang, the creators of which already possessed the highly developed art of bronze metallurgy and a number of other cultural achievements, raised many questions about the specific ways of the genesis of the Shan civilization. Only further research could provide answers to these questions.

In 1950, in Erligan (near Zhengzhou in prov. Henan) was discovered a settlement, classified as a Shang, earlier than Xiaotun. Since the mid-50s, archaeologists have discovered a number of even more archaic monuments of the same type.

Erlitou Culture 2100-1800 (1500) BC

In 1959, excavations were started at the multi-layered settlement of Erlitou near Yanshi. The materials of the four layers of this monument were so expressive that they gave the basis for the identification of an independent culture of Erlitou. The evolution of the Erlitou culture has not yet been clearly explained. A number of researchers attribute the qualitative shift observed at the level of the third layer to the fact that the monuments of the first and second layers belonged to the legendary Xia tribe, which was later defeated by the Shang tribe, which dramatically changed the cultural appearance of the Erlitous people. The introduction of the facts drawn from the legends into the archaeological context cannot serve as a basis for indisputable conclusions, but as a working hypothesis, we can agree with the interpretation of the content of the third and fourth layers as Early Christian monuments.

Ranneshanskoe structure of the palace-temple type (reconstruction). Erlitou.

Ranneshanskoe structure of the palace-temple type (reconstruction). Erlitou. The first half (1600-1400 BC) of the second millennium BC.

In the third layer, a vast platform of rammed earth was revealed, on which were located the ruins of a complex of buildings that had the character of a palace and temple center. The platform rose 80 cm above the surface and was surrounded by a wall of rammed earth. Its length from north to south is 100 m, and from west to east — 108 m. The center of the platform is occupied by the foundation of a rectangular building 30 m long and 11 m wide. Along its walls, along the entire perimeter, there are traces of support pillars and their stone bases. This post frame appears to have supported the four-pitched roof and its overhanging edges. The remains of the gallery and gate surrounding the palace have also been excavated. The walls of the palace and the gallery were built in the Neolithic tradition and consisted of a wicker frame supported by pillars, coated on the outside with clay with the addition of chopped straw. Around the central complex there are numerous foundations of ground dwellings, dugouts, ash pits, wells, pottery kilns and traces of metallurgical production in the form of fragments of clay crucibles, ceramic molds and slag. As in the previous layers, the agricultural equipment of the Erlitous people consisted of stone sickles, stone hoes and knives, tools made of horn and shells. Traces of the use of laysa’s wooden two-pronged tool for digging up the earth were found. However, the real discovery was the metal tools and weapons found here: knives, awls, chisels, arrowheads, peckers. Chemical analysis of these objects and other metal products indicates that they were all made of bronze. Composition of the metal from which it is cast —

  • Chisel: Cu-98%, Sn-1%;
  • vessel: Cu-92%, Sn-7%.

The emergence of metallurgyThe art

of the Erlitou casters can be judged by the small bronze bell found on the territory of the settlement and the bronze ritual vessel of Jue in the form of a tall vase on three legs with a narrow drain. Similar items were found in the Erlitou burials. The bronze vessels of this time copy the shapes of the clay vessels found in all four layers of the Erlitou culture. These are the earliest finds of such products in East Asia. Here was born one of the most expressive traditions of ancient Chinese culture — the production of special bronze vessels intended for sacrifices to the ancestors.

A vessel for sacrificial wine. Ancient China.

A vessel for sacrificial wine, depicting a sacred and ceremonial scene of anthropophagy. Bronze. The Shang-Yin era. The second half of the second millennium BC.

The presence among the materials of the third layer of Erlitou (dated to 14C of the XIII century BC) of fragments of crucibles, ceramic molds, foundry slags and a fairly wide range of bronze products reflects the indisputable fact that at this time the Yellow River Valley already had its own center of metallurgy and metalworking. The early stages of metallurgical evolution in this region, following the first introduction of copper in the Late Longshan period, are not yet documented by archaeological evidence.

The latter circumstance has given rise to a number of assumptions that the source of the impulse, under the influence of which the local metallurgical center was formed, should be sought outside the Yellow River basin and China in general. As you know, the signs of the earliest acquaintance with metal for East and South-East Asia, archaeologists found at the settlement of Nonnoktha, in North-Eastern Thailand. However, no parallel has been found in Nonnoktha or elsewhere in the region for the Early British technological tradition of producing ritual bronze utensils using multi-section collapsible molds. There are also no data for the hypothesis of the impact on the origin and early evolution of bronze production in Erlitou from the north, from the theoretically reconstructed Central Asian metallurgical center. Thus, contrary to the suggestions of some historians, Early German metallurgy developed in obvious isolation from the influences from neighboring centers of metallurgy and metalworking, the existence of which is known to modern science.

Among the materials of the third layer of Erlitou, there is evidence of the originality of the metalworking techniques that have developed here, meaning the above-mentioned technology for the production of bronze vessels, bells and other products using multi-section collapsible ceramic molds. Judging by the discovery of a bronze vessel, inside of which the remains of one of the sections of this shape were preserved, and a number of other finds, this technology was well known to the Erlitous people.

Human sacrifice

The proof that the early Christian tribes in their social development reached the stage of early class society, along with the palace and temple complex, is the discovery in the third and fourth layers of a large number of buried people with traces of violent death. These burials, in contrast to the simultaneous Early Christian burial grounds, were performed in pits and ash pits without any accompanying equipment. Often the heads were buried separately from the bodies, or the upper limbs were buried separately from the lower ones. A number of pits were found where the skeletons lay in several layers. These are obviously the remains of human sacrifices, for which prisoners of war who were converted into slavery were used.

The Erlitou culture originated in the bowels of the Henan Longshan in the early II millennium BC. Local tribes, developing their material culture, mastered and developed the production skills and traditions of the Eneolithic population of the Yellow River basin. They achieved high proficiency in the technique of casting and in the art of construction. Their development was characterized by a rapid pace. In the course of three or four centuries, there has been an evolution from primitiveness to the first stages of civilization. The information received by the archaeologists about the shift that occurred during the third and fourth layers of Erlitou reflects the fundamental changes in the social organization of Early Christian society, which, apparently, came to the stage of creating statehood and forming a new ideology.

“Zhengzhou-Erligan” period of development

Development of metallurgy

The discovery and study of monuments later than Erlitou, which, according to Chinese archaeologists, are characteristic of the next stage of the cultural evolution of the Shang tribe (called “Zhengzhou-Erligan” – after the location of the monuments), is associated with the excavation of a settlement in the vicinity of Zhengzhou (Henan province). It was a major craft center. The bronze foundries discovered in the Nanguanwai area and in Zijinshan contained crucibles of the same type as those found in Erlitou. The pottery kilns found in Lugunlu are very similar in design to those of Erlitou.

At the same time, significant progress in foundry technology and other areas should be noted. There was a significant expansion of the entire composition of the Shan cultural complex. The middle of the second millennium BC was marked by the appearance of a number of new types of bronze tools and weapons. In the interior of East Asia, the vtul-shaped spearheads and Celts, which spread over a vast territory from the Urals to Mongolia, penetrate. The bronze inventory of this time was also supplemented with coinage that originated in Central Asia. The improvement of the technique of local metalworking masters was particularly clearly manifested in the complexes of ritual bronze utensils found in the area of the Zhengzhou settlement. Among them were presented almost all the main forms of ancient Chinese utensils used in sacrifices, in particular

  • three-legged ding type cauldrons, jue
  • vases,
  • tall narrow gu vases,
  • low flat-bodied bowls with a light pan type stem, wine
  • vessels with a wide base and a rounded body, etc.

Their appearance is very archaic, they are small in size, sparsely decorated with geometric semi-relief ornaments. In 1974, bronze vessels were discovered in the area of the Zhengzhou settlement, which significantly surpassed all previous Sredneshanskie finds of this kind in size and workmanship. These are round and square dinas. The height of the first — 100 cm, weight-86 kg, the height of the second-87 cm, weight-64 kg. Their surface is richly ornamented. Such unique finds indicate that the artisans who made them reached the top in the virtuoso art of casting ritual utensils.

The remains of a palace and temple complex were also found on the Zhengzhou hillfort. In the course of research in 1973, an extensive platform of rammed earth was excavated. Its length from west to east is 300 m, and from north to south — 150 m. In a number of places, round depressions were found, representing traces of the support pillars of ancient palace or temple premises. A 15-meter-long moat containing about a hundred skulls of sacrificed slave prisoners of war is also uncovered here.

Settlement near Taisi village

Along with the findings in Henan province, interesting discoveries were made in other parts of China — in the north and in the south. One of the features that characterized the development of local tribes in the middle of the second millennium BC was that many of them had already reached the stage of transition from tribal unions to early state formations. Another was the spread far beyond the borders of Henan province of a number of elements of material culture, similar to the elements of the Shang cultural complex. An example of this is a settlement and burial ground near Taixi village in Gaocheng County, Hebei Province. A bronze axe with an iron blade was found here, opening up the prospect of discovering one of the oldest iron metallurgy centers in East Asia in this area. The inventory included some items of Central Asian appearance, along with weapons and bronze vessels similar to the Shan ones.

Under Taisi, a group of 11 dwellings dating back to the Middle Christian period was excavated. With the exception of one semi — earth-type dwelling, all the others are ground-based, with walls made of blocks of rammed earth. The dimensions of the largest house are 14.2 x 4.32 m. In addition, 58 burials dating from the same time were excavated. A number of burials contain vivid evidence of emerging property and social inequality. In some, the accompanying inventory, in addition to numerous bronze weapons and vessels, contained jade products, scraps of silk fabrics. Fragments of lacquer products were found. In five graves, their slaves were forcibly buried together with their masters. Slave skulls were also found during excavations of buildings, at the bases of pillars, in the foundations of walls and in the corners of houses. There is one date-1520 (±160) BC, obtained as a result of radiocarbon analysis of a sample from a location in Taixi.

Panlongcheng Hillfort

A palace-type structure. Panlongcheng.

Palace-type structure (reconstruction). Panlongcheng. Hubei. XIII-XII centuries BC.

Complexes of monuments of this time are also discovered in the Yangtze River basin and to the south of it. They were created by societies that crossed the threshold of civilization, like the Shang and the early class settlement in Hebei Province. These include the Panlongcheng hillfort (5 km north of Wuhan). The remains of an ancient wall and moat were found around the settlement. On the territory of the settlement — a platform of rammed earth, extending from north to south 100 m, and from west to east— 60 m. Once it served as the foundation of the palace and temple complex. The size of one building is 39.8 m from west to east and 12.3 m from north to south. Its walls, as in Erlitou, rested on a wooden frame and consisted of a wicker base covered with clay. The building appeared to have a two-story, four-pitched roof and was surrounded by a gallery. Such a method of building palace and temple buildings in the area controlled by the Shants was already an anachronism. In the Middle Christian period, the walls begin to be built from blocks of rammed earth.

Some of Panlongcheng’s lag in construction is redeemed by advances in metalworking. Local masters are at the level of Zhengzhou and even ahead of them. The set of types and forms of bronze weapons, tools and utensils found here, including such innovations as Celts, finds close analogies in the products of the Zhengzhou metallurgical center. Some discrepancies are noted in the assortment of bronze vessels. In Panlongcheng, there are such forms as combined yang cauldrons designed for cooking sacrificial food over fire and steam, closed wine vessels, etc., which, until now, were thought to have been invented and introduced into use only in Anyang time. A purely local ceramic tradition is represented by vessels made of white porcelain-like mass.

Archaeologists ‘ research on the Panlongcheng site shows that in the second half of the second millennium BC (approximately at the turn of the XIII-XII centuries BC), fortified urban-type settlements appeared in the Yangtze River Valley. The question of the genesis of the early urban culture in Hubei province, similar to the Middle Chinese, as well as the question of the ratio and synthesis of local bases and components brought from the Yellow River Valley, was not raised by Chinese authors. They consider this settlement to be the fruit of the expansion of the Shan state. More realistic is the assumption that here we are dealing with one of the centers of ethnopolitical consolidation of the tribes-the creators of the Southern Chinese kingdom of Chu, mentioned already in the inscription on the vessel Lin Gui, cast in the early X century BC.

Settlement near Wucheng village

In 1973, near Qingjiang (Jiangxi Province) another center of ancient culture was found, which maintained constant contacts with the Zhengzhou-Erligan zone, and then with the Anyang district. It is a settlement near Wucheng village. The time of its existence is divided into three periods —

  • the first corresponds to the Zhengzhou-Erligan stage,
  • the second — the Early-and Middle-Apian stage, the
  • third-the Late-Apian stage.

The greatest number of finds were found in the layer of the 2nd period: the base of the dwelling, a pottery oven, ashtrays. In the latter, the inventory of bronze-foundry production was found: stone molds made of sandstone for casting axes and adzes, slags, and charcoal. Ash pits with stone molds for casting weapons were also found in the layer of the 3rd period. When studying the materials of the 1st period, the similarity of certain types of ceramics with ceramics from Erligan (near Zhengzhou) is found. The local ceramics of the subsequent periods have a number of common features with the ceramics found in different layers of the Xiaotun settlement. However, there is enough evidence of an independent origin of the Wucheng ceramic tradition. Here are white vessels made of porcelain-like mass.

The bronze tools and weapons found in Wucheng are marked by the features of identity. Considerable interest was aroused by the discovery of local written monuments in the layers of the first, second and third periods. During the excavations, clay vessels and molds were found, on the surface of which whole inscriptions were carved, consisting of 4, 5, 7 and 12 specific written signs, as well as individual signs. A total of 66 signs were found on 38 items. The letter from Wucheng was apparently logographic in nature and represented the initial phase of written culture, as were the divination inscriptions of Xiaotong. The identity of a large number of logograms testifies to the contacts of the Wucheng and Shan written traditions. A significant difficulty is the question of the ethnicity of those tribes that in the second half of the second millennium BC were the inventors of writing in southern China. The most likely opinion is that the Wucheng settlement is a monument of the material and spiritual culture of the Yue tribes, the creators of the Yue kingdom.

Formation of the same type of culture

Thus, as a result of the discoveries of the last decades, urban-type settlements belonging to the Early and Middle Han times have become known to science, not only in the Yellow River Valley, but also in the Yangtze River Valley. In a number of places, the ruins of extensive multi-room buildings were found, standing on large platforms. The restoration of the external appearance and layout of such buildings gives grounds to assert that they were temple-palace complexes and residences of rulers for their purpose. This circumstance can be considered as one of the most important signs of the emerging statehood.

On the other hand, the analysis of a number of characteristics of funerary monuments, such as the size and design of graves, the quantity and quality of burial equipment, the burial ritual and the location of burial grounds, the presence of co-buried and sacrificed slaves, indicates a far-reaching transformation of social structures associated with the development of property inequality into social inequality. In the light of these observations, it seems legitimate to consider the listed settlements and settlements as political and trade and craft centers of early state formations that arose in the second half of the second millennium BC in the basins of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River.

Bronze yue. Erlitou. Henan.

Bronze yue for drinking. Possibly the Xia Dynasty (2100-1600 BC). Erlitou. Henan.

The process of formation of the same type of culture in the vast territory occupied by these formations was extremely complex and was not limited to the spread of influence from north to south. The southern regions, in turn, apparently had an active impact on the Shan society. The most important aspect of this process was the constant cultural and economic ties between the centers of associations, manifested in various forms of exchange, interaction and mutual influence.

To the north and west of the Henan hearth of the Shang tribe, during the second millennium BC, numerous centers of consolidation of other related tribes of the Bronze Age were also created, which actively perceived the Shang culture. This can be seen in the example of the Taisi settlement and burial ground. At the same time, being located on the lands adjacent to the Central Asian region, they constantly came into contact with the tribes of Central Asia, which is reflected in their material culture. So, in addition to the already mentioned things of Central Asian appearance, similar finds were made near the city of Suide (Shaanxi province) and the city of Baode (Shanxi Province). Here, as part of two hoards of bronze items of the Shan type, there was also a large knife with a curved blade and a pommel with the image of an animal on the handle, a dagger with a tambourine pommel and a vertical loop under it. The northernmost find, apparently dating from the second half of the second millennium BC, is a hoard of bronze objects from Chao Daogou (in the territory of Hebei province) of the Central Asian type, which contained a knife and a dagger with pommels in the form of an animal’s head with horns,a knife with a tambourine pommel, an eye axe and a chisel. All these finds reflected contacts with the tribes that created the Central Asian centers of bronze metallurgy, the intensity of which increased as they approached the borders of the Central Asian region.

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