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Shaanxi Tombs a Fantastic Find

After days of investigation and research, Chinese archaeologists believe that the tombs they excavated at Zhou Gong Temple, Qishan County, Shaanxi Province, may be the family cemetery of Zhou Gong, the regent in the early years of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 1100 BC–771 BC).

In their exploration of the burial ground, which began in March, archaeologists discovered 19 large tombs and 13 funeral pits. Nine of the tombs have four passages each, four have three passages, another four have two passages and two have just one tomb passage each.

More than 700 tortoise shells engraved with 420 characters identified so far were also unearthed at the tombs. Among the inscriptions on the shells, archaeologists discovered the symbols for "Zhou Gong" four times.

The dig also revealed a 1,500-meter-long city wall and six sites of building ruins.

"We began our archaeological studies of the Western Zhou Dynasty over 70 years ago, but this is the first time we have discovered a large city site that includes a city wall, tortoise shells, ruins and tombs for persons of high rank," said Peking University Professor Zou Heng. The 78-year-old Zou is noted for his discovery of the relics of the capitals of Yan and Jin, two states of the Western Zhou Dynasty, and directing the excavation of the tomb of a Marquis of Jin.

Zou says the "Zhou Gong" inscription on the tortoise shells indicates that the site may be the fiefdom of Zhou Gong, and the tombs may be those of the nobleman's family.

"The tombs of dukes or princes--even kings--that we have discovered in the past had only one or two tomb passages," said Yin Shengping, a historian specializing in the Western Zhou Dynasty and a former curator of the Shaanxi Historical Museum. "But it is understandable if the tombs with four passages that we discovered this time were of the family of Zhou Gong. He enjoyed the treatment of a king in the Western Zhou Dynasty and so was entitled to the highest funeral rites," said Yin.

Zhou Gong, whose given name was Ji Dan, was the founding father of the Western Zhou Dynasty, assisting his brother, Ji Fa, in overthrowing the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BC–c. 1100 BC). Ji Fa became the first king of the Western Zhou Dynasty,

After Ji Fa's death, Zhou Gong acted as regent to assist Ji Fa's young son in ruling the country. He returned power to the boy seven years later.

During his regency, Zhou Gong established regulations and systems that laid the foundation for the political civilization of the Chinese nation. It is on the basis of Zhou Gong's ideas that Confucius (551 BC–479 BC) created the code that later became the core of Chinese culture.

"As the title of Zhou Gong was passed down for more than 500 years, it is not surprising that there are several tombs with four passages," said Zhang Tian'en, a researcher with the Shaanxi Archaeological Research Institute. His work involves searching for tombs of the Western Zhou kings.

However, Yuan Zhongyi--former curator of the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses Museum--says that because the four-passage tombs are comparatively small, there could not be the tombs of the Western Zhou kings. "It is more likely that the tombs are the family cemetery of Zhou Gong," said Yuan. "But further excavation and investigation is necessary before we can say for certain."

Local officials say that armed police will soon be guarding the site. The Qishan County government has banned new construction projects and will halt any ongoing projects in a 10-square-kilometer area around the tombs.

"This burial ground should be treated in accordance with regulations on historical sites, afforded first-class state protection, and should be given the best protection," said Shan Jixiang, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

(Xinhua News Agency, China Daily June 8, 2004)

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