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The Archaeology of the Three Dynasties

It all started back in 1899 with discoveries of some mysterious Jiaguwen. These are inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells. They were found at what turned out to be the ruins of the capital city of the late Shang or Yin Dynasty located at Yinxu near Xiaotun Village, Anyang City, Henan Province.


The site was excavated some 15 times from 1928 through 1937 as the archaeologists looked back down the years to the time of the San Dai, the Three Dynasties. This is at the very dawn of Chinese history and comprises the Xia (c.2100-1600 BC), Shang (c.1600-1100 BC) and Zhou (c.1100-256 BC) Dynasties. There are few substantive written records of these ancient days.


Generations of historians have dedicated themselves to painstaking and meticulous study of the old texts looking for credible historical accounts of the Three Dynasties. Their mission was bit by bit to draw aside the curtain of time that cloaks the boundaries between history and prehistory, civilization and barbarism eventually to look in on the origins of Chinese civilization.


Ten years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China a breakthrough came in 1959. It was the result of the insight of the renowned historian Xu Xusheng. His research had led him to believe that the Xia people had been concentrated in the area of today's west Henan Province and south Shanxi Province. And so Xu embarked on an archaeological survey that led him to Erlitou in Yanshi County, Henan Province. Later excavations at the site were to reveal the foundations of two magnificent palaces. The early Bronze Age, Erlitou culture has been dated to about 2100-1700 BC and attributed to the Xia Dynasty.


Since the 1950s, archaeological work in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, has reconstructed the early Shang culture as represented by the Erligang culture. 1976 saw the exploration of the Fuhao tomb at Yinxu, which further enriched people’s knowledge of the Shang. Archaeologists also resumed other work at Yinxu that had been suspended for a while. They unearthed the foundations of palaces, bronze casting workshops, segregated graveyards for the nobility and the general populace, as well as over 4,000 inscribed tortoise shells and animal bones. These finds have served to offer a new insight into the lives of the people of the Shang Dynasty.


Recent excavations at Sanxingdui in Guanghan city, Sichuan Province and Wubeiling in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province have cast a new light on the cultural links between the Shang imperial court which ruled the Central Plains (the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River) and contemporary states throughout southwest and south China.


The 1929 discovery of a Sanxingdui culture dating back between 3,000 and 5,000 years has been ranked as one of China’s top ten archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.


Since the 1980s, extensive archaeological work has been revealing the secrets of the 12 square kilometer Sanxingdui site with its ancient walled town. Graves and many cultural relics have been found.


The Sanxingdui discoveries have been supplemented by later finds at Baodun in Xinjin County, Mangcheng in Dujiangyan City, Gucheng in Pixian County and Yujicheng in Wenjiang City, all in Sichuan Province. They demonstrate that even before the Xia Dynasty, the ancient Shu people of the Chengdu Plain had created a regional civilization characterized by grand ritual buildings and high city walls. The long-lived Shu civilization centered on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River continued all through the time of the three dynasties.


King Wen and King Wu of Zhou built their capital cities of Fengyi and Gaojing in the 11th century BC. The two cities cover a total area of 15 square kilometers and face each other across the Fenghe River in Changan County, Shaanxi Province. History shows they remained the political, economic and cultural centers of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c.1100-771 BC) for nearly 300 years.


The Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has been involved in archaeological surveys and excavations at Fengyi and Gaojing ever since 1951. This work has yielded artifacts of inestimable value to detailed research into the Western Zhou Dynasty, a time of profound social change in Chinese history.


Other important discoveries of the Western Zhou Dynasty include: a royal bronze casting workshop in Luoyang, Henan Province; a cemetery holding the earthly remains of the aristocracy of the State of Yan, a kingdom enfeoffed by the Western Zhou imperial court based at Liulihe in Beijing; the tomb of Marquis Jinhou of the State of Jin, similarly enfeoffed as a vassal kingdom, in Beizhao village, Quwo County, Shanxi Province.


A large number of inscribed bronze-ware items, bamboo slips (used for writing) and musical instruments such as serial bells and chimes have been unearthed from graves of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC). The excavations have included important tombs like those of Marquis Caihou, Zenghouyi and King Zhongshan. The finds help to provide an overall perspective of Eastern Zhou society in regard to its social economy, military organization and ceremonial life.


During the 9th Five-year Plan (1996-2000) China launched a “Periodization Project of the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties.” Based on a combination of extensive archaeological excavations, thorough textual research and advanced dating technologies the scientists eventually derived a convincing chronological table of the once thought, merely legendary Three Dynasties.


(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, April 11, 2003)


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