UCLA International Institute
Asia Institute

Advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary research on Asia worldwide


Anyang Archaeology in the 21st Century: New Perspectives in the Search for the Shang Civilization

by TANG JIGEN (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

© Regents of the University of California, 2010

The topic today is Anyang archaeology in the twenty-first century. I intend to talk about more than just new discoveries alone. I shall also talk about what questions we are now interested in in Chinese archaeology, what new knowledge we can learn from archaeology data, and what methodology we are using for archaeological studies in China.

2
1 2

 

Before I start, I also would like to say something about the Shang state in Chinese history. As Professor Lothar von Falkenhausen mentioned just now, the Shang state is famous in Chinese history, as the Shang culture was the earliest to have left written records. The material remains of the Shang civilization are basically concentrated in what is today the province of Henan province and the surrounding area. This map does not represent political territory but instead shows the distribution of the remains of the material culture [2]. However, the political territory has some connection to the distribution of remains, of course: these two elements make up the Shang. The Shang dynasty lasted from the sixteenth century BC till the year 1046 BC.

What is today the city of Anyang is the place where the oracle bones with inscriptions were discovered. Excavation started in Anyang in 1928, so archaeological history in Anyang has been very long. Fieldwork excavation in Anyang has never stopped since the establishment of contemporary China. In 1976, a very wealthy tomb was discovered in Anyang. It was discovered by Professor Jing, who was also my Master's [degree] supervisor.

3 4
3 4

 

Now I'm going to talk about Anyang archaeology in the past ten years through a discussion of ten different sites. First of all, we have done some research on environmental issues. If you really want to learn about a particular site, you need to try to understand the natural background first. We then organized a regional survey around the area of the modern city of Anyang. Anyang is located on the top of this land. We made a geological section by cutting into this area, which helped us understand the geological situation [3]. We also took samples from the soil of the spot where the Shang capital was located. We took the samples to the laboratory and dated them and also conducted some pollen studies [4]. Finally, we located Shang-period farmlands, like at this level. The color of the soil seems darker than the soil in modern times. Now we really know about the surface of the farmland [5, 6].

5 6
5 6

 

Secondly, I want to talk about the Anyang's pattern of settlement as revealed by archaeology. We started a survey project in 1997. The region we covered in this survey was huge. This is the luoyang spade [7], which is widely used by archaeologists because it is very effective. We use this tool to drill into the soil and take samples out [8]. If we carefully observe the soil, we can make some interpretations regarding the remains buried underground. For example, if the soil sample looks like this [9], this is an indication of rammed earth. This could the presence of an architectural structure, or perhaps a tomb. However, if the soil sample looks like this [10], it should be from somewhere near a coffin. This equipment helps us a lot when we do various archaeological surveys.

7
8
7. Coring with the Luoyang spade 8. Core sample

 

9
8
9. Rammed earth 10. Soil from near a coffin

 

 

The final outcome of the regional survey tells us the settlement pattern in the Anyang region. This is in the so-called middle period of the Shang dynasty. This is a map of the distribution of settlements along the Huan River Valley dating back to the Late Shang period. If we compare the two periods, there is no big difference [11]. There is one big core, which tells us of a two-level structure. That means there is only one political and economic center, with the surrounding regions dotted with smaller settlements. Another important outcome after doing this regional survey for years is a new map of the Shang capital. This map shows us what the capital looked like during the Shang period in Anyang [12].

10 11
11 12

 

Our project team organized a survey beginning in 1997 -- and we have focused on this region from the beginning. The reason we focused on this region is because we did some research before going into the field. We first saw there were some small pottery pieces that share very similar cultural characteristics. These pottery pieces and other materials tell us that they are from very similar periods. Therefore, we hypothesized that they originated from the same site rather than different sites. We believed that this region could be one of the central sites of the Shang period. An intensive survey of the area allowed us to be quite sure that all the pottery pieces originated from one single site. Then, we extended our project towards the north, east, and south. However, we had no idea if we could locate the city that we were confident was there. One day, our car ran out of gas in the field, so the technicians suggested coring in the area. By accident, we located the city wall in that area [13].

12

13

 

Then we located a huge enclosure—dated to a bit earlier than the Late Shang—that encompassed 4.7 sq km. Thus, we were able to prove the existence of the Middle Shang period. After the survey, we had to substantiate our preliminary findings and hypotheses through excavation. We excavated the site for three years. This is one of the excavation sites of the city. You can see that this is a part of a huge Shang courtyard with two entrances. You can see the collapsed pieces of the wall here and the entrances to the courtyard [14]. We also excavated more than thirty Shang architectural remains in the center of the city. Now we have proof—we located the inner city three years ago. Now, we know how the Shang people laid out the city that was their final capital: Yinxu.

13

14

If you do archaeology about the Shang, the picture about Anyang is quite different. Before we located the city enclosure, we only had this part. This is very recent and is only one of the many achievements we have made in the past few years.

2
15 16

 

When we say the Shang civilization, we need to understand who created it. Who is responsible for the bones? Who made the bronze? We should understand this. We should understand the different ethnicities of the people and study the human bones from a human anthropological perspective [15, 16]. The anthropological techniques do confirm one conclusion: it suggests that the Shang people were from many different regions. There are some Asians and even some from the Pacific Islands. The results of the DNA test contradict previous notions. Although we have done research based on science, the most important thing is our eyes. For example, let me show you several figurines discovered in Anyang. I think that all the figurines are conscious or unconscious depictions of the Shang people themselves. From the perspective of these kinds of objects, the people who created the Shang civilization were Asian [17].

2
2
2
17

 

Also, I would like to say something about traditional Chinese archaeology. In the last century, if you read papers on Chinese archaeology, you will notice that we spend a lot of energy and pay a lot of attention to material and cultural theorizing. I think those aspects are still important. However, for theorizing, we have done something new: the pottery tells us the sequence of the typology of the Shang cooking vessels or the funeral or grave goods. Because of the new discoveries, we have changed this periodization. We created a new one, with newer material from before the Late Shang [18, 19]. We not only work on this topic, but we also work on some new topics such as residence and neighborhoods, which are popular in Western archaeology.

2
18 19

 

What we have done is to open some residential sites. Then we can learn how these sites are formatted. At the beginning, we located some pits. Gradually the Shang people moved in and built some architecture. For some unknown reason, they then moved away. The same place thus became a part of the cemetery.

Understanding this, we now know how the people once lived together. By excavating the architectural remains, we also learn about how the Shang people lived in the past. For example, this is a courtyard [20]. If you go to Beijing, you'll see there are a lot of courtyards there. Now we are able to trace this cultural aspect back to the Shang dynasty. How big is this courtyard? This part is only two-thirds of the courtyard; from the west wing to the east wing, it measured 170 meters. So the Shang people, if they drove a chariot in there, they can move into the courtyard one by one. We now know particularly how the Shang elites lived.

2
20 21

 

The main hall of the courtyard looks like this [21]. Because we can also understand the basic structure of Shang buildings, we can reconstruct Shang architecture. For example, this one we can reconstruct using computer technology [22]. We follow the remains and we reconstruct it to know what things were like [23].

2
22 23

 

We are also interested in the archaeological study of the Shang economy. Agriculture was very important for the Shang. In the past, information about agriculture was gleaned from oracle bone inscriptions. But by doing floatations in the field, we obtained millet and wheat. We also did some asphalt extraction. From this, we learned that the Shang people planted wheat and millet [24].

23

24

Many scholars are interested in bronze technology. But how did the Shang people make statues? In 2007, someone gave a lecture at the British Royal Academy and said that the Shang did not use models or molds. However, we know that is not true because now we even know about the detailed procedures of how the Shang made bronze [25]. Also, since we have excavated many more chariots of the Shang period, we know how the Shang people transported themselves [26].

 

2
2
      25

 

23

26

Social organization is another popular topic in the U.S. When we talk about the Shang, we obviously are reminded of its sophisticated social structure. But what exactly was it? Many scholars and historians argue that the Shang was a slave-based society; however, archaeological studies show that this might not be true. The argument for a slave-based society is based on evidence from a sacrificial pit. Further studies have shown that although the Shang did kill humans for sacrifices, they were captives instead of slaves [27, 28]. The human remains from a sacrifice tell us that the majority of the captives were of the Qiang ethnicity, who lived in nearby provinces. In the 2008, there was an earthquake in Sichuan and the majority of people who suffered from the effects are the Qiang people. History has been unfair to the Qiang people.

2

27

28

If the people who were captured and killed were not slaves, then where are the slaves? Chinese archaeology in the last century was strongly influenced by Marxism. Marxism contends that ancient society was slave society. This lady is a professional archaeologist [29]. She opened up a tomb of the elite and located a couple of sacrificial remains. Farmers and workers were called in. Perhaps she was criticizing slave society.

28

29

To understand the social organization of the Shang people, there are many methods, including through the study of pottery [30].

28

30

If you open up land like this, you will see a lot of tombs distributed on the surface. This group is from one family, while this other tomb is from another family [31]. Tomb raiders have looted the various graves. The one who dug this is a professional. Instead of digging a pit, he dug the softer dirt around the tomb.

29

31

The distribution of tombs in the cemetery tells us that the horizontal social organization was lineage based. The basic social unit was the familial lineage. Statistically though, Shang society had a highly developed hierarchy. Looking at the tombs, more than 82 to 87 percent of them belonged to commoners, leaving roughly 10 percent who were upper-middle elites in the capital region. Very few tombs looked like they belonged to slaves. This is further evidence that Shang society was not a slave society.

Integration and cultural exchange is another topic. Through pottery ecology and asphalt studies, we topologically know that when, in the beginning, the Shang capital was established it was culturally diverse. We see that people moved in from many different areas. Thus, we can start to determine where the royal family originated from. Employing isotopic studies, we can find out the origin of the Shang people who came and established the capital of Anyang [32, 33, 34].

2
32 33

 

32

34

 

This is a tomb where we located a steamer. When we discovered the steamer, we also excavated a skull. Then, we saw that a second skull was feeding the steamer [35, 36]. Were these remains cooked? We need an answer to the question of whether these two human beings were cooked or not. However, it’s easy to see whether the people were cooked or steamed. A skull that has been steamed is weaker than a skull from the tomb, which is yellowish. If you crack these two skulls, you will find that the one from the steamer is softer and without jagged edges.

2
35 36

 

It is difficult to understand who these two people were and where they were from. That is why we introduced isotopic studies. Strontium studies of the teeth showed us that the two individuals came from a non-local area. Before drawing any conclusions from the skulls, we compared them with the average level of strontium [37]. If the level in the skulls fell within the average level, we would know that they could have been local people, but if it was outside of it, we can tell that they were not locals. Looking at this particular skull, we know that she was foreign. By taking more samples from different regions, such as Jiangnan, we can predict where the Shang people came from based on strontium analysis.

32

37

 

With all this information, we can predict where the Shang people came from. Our most recent hypothesis is that the lady in the steamer came from southwest of Anyang.

And of course, the Shang state is famous for its oracle bone inscriptions. It is rare to find oracle bones individually, piece by piece [38, 39, 40]. In most cases, the Shang people buried written records in an archival organization. We've located over five thousand and have decoded a thousand characters. The most frequently used characters have been decoded so now we can read most of the inscriptions and understand what they are talking about. One thing I would like to make clear today is that there are misunderstandings concerning Shang writing. The daily writing of the Shang people was brush writing, similar to Han China. In 2003, we located a piece of a mold, which showed us that they wrote on molds before casting the bronze [41].

2
38 39

 

2
40 41

 

 

China has been trying to make the Shang civilization more popular. The National Museum of Writing is located in Anyang [42].

26

42

 

The last topic I will discuss is how and why the Shang civilization collapsed. There have been be many previous versions and explanations of the collapse. First of all, there was war on the eastern border. Historical records show that before the collapse, troops were sent to the east to fight to maintain the security of the state. This led to the collapse of the Shang because the Zhou rose up and attacked from the west. However, does this really tell us anything about the collapse of the state?

A second explanation to this question has to do with the King Zhu, who turned out to be the last king of the Shang. King Zhu's cruelty to the commoners, it is said, caused them to rebel and overthrow the Shang. King Zhu was said to have treated everyone cruelty, in fact.

A third and more theoretical interpretation is social conflict. The Shang state, with a hierarchal structure, contained a lot of conflicts between the different classes. Though this is a traditional Marxist interpretation, it is also supported by the archaeological evidence. However, maybe there is always this kind of conflict. But why is it that the Shang collapsed when it did?

Archaeology can give us an answer. The archaeological data reveal two striking changes that led up to the fall of the Shang. First, there was a loss of cultural diversity. Cultural diversity is key for maintaining the stability of a society. If we make a comparison between the cultural material of the early phase of the Late Shang and the later phase of the Late Shang, we can clearly see the loss of cultural diversity [43]. We have learned that in the beginning, when the capital was set up, people came in from different regions. When we opened up the residential sites, we could see the differences. However, if you excavate later into the Late Shang period, you see a lot of uniformity. It's quite a different culture between the two time periods. Thus, the loss of cultural diversity could be another explanation for the collapse of the Shang civilization.

26

43

 

I went through very quickly what we did in Shang archaeology over the last ten years. Now, I will move forward. One thing that I would like to say is that I love archaeology, but I also keep in mind the fact that we need to do something for society.

In that connection, I would like to talk about the preservation of Yinshu as a cultural heritage. In the 1970s, the capital city of Shang looked like this [44]. It was flat and wild and not attractive at all. But what is the link between the past and the present? Why do we still do archaeology with the growth of the Chinese economy?

26

44

 

Just before I came here, there was a controversial debate about how to do on-site archaeology. We can do some paperwork and can now put it on the internet, but the image is still one of inaccessibility. In order to bring archaeology of Yinxu to the public, in the 2005 we built a museum in Anyang and displayed objects for everyone to enjoy, which brought the subject alive [45, 46, 47]. I made a human head which speaks in the Anyang dialect, and that was placed in the museum [48].

26

26

45

46

26

26

47

48

 

This is one of the ways to make archaeology accessible to the public. Also, to attract the public, I made a suggestion to the city government to bring a masterpiece on loan from Beijing to Anyang. I also did something for the local people who live around the site. They had a performance to show what ceremonies might have been like in the time of Fu Hao [49]. They responded very enthusiastically. In short, when we conduct archaeology, we also have to think about how to serve the people.

32

49

 

In 2006, we enhanced the site of the Yinxu Museum, making it more visible. It has now become one of the more attractive sites. Since we created large, open spaces, whe you are there, you feel more in touch with the site. It is important to present the past to the present and to make the cultural landscape and sites into park-like settings. Even the National Ministry of Culture in China agrees with our idea. Cultural landscapes and park sites are now becoming more acceptable and more popular.

However, things are still difficult. Before I came here, the Chinese premier received a from some other archaeologists. They argued against doing "cultural landscaping" because they claim that it will abuse archaeological sites. However, there is a way to protect sites even if you do cultural landscape. We still have to work to persuade scholars to think beyond narrow academic boundaries and to deal not only with preserving but also presenting sites like Anyang.

Finally, the most important site in Anyang is, of course, the Shang capital. But there is a lot more. For example, we have the tombs of the Shang kings, the earliest archaeologically confirmed royal cemetery in China [50]. Also, Anyang is the place where Yuan Shikai, the last emperor of China, is buried [51]. The tomb of Cao Cao [52, 53] is also located here. Thus, Anyang is quite a unique place in China.

d 2
50 51
d 2
52 53