HERITAGE AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL NEWS BRIEFS
NEW BRONZE DISCOVERIES
Fig. 1 A "northern style" bronze battle-axe from the late period of the Shang dynasty. The piece, measuring 18 cm in height, is in the collection of the Capital Museum in Beijing and is said to have been unearthed at Yulin in Shaanxi province.
Bronzes, like jades, serve as the major technological and ritual signifiers of pre-Qin Chinese societies, and their discovery is invariably welcome for the quantity of information they reveal about the nature of the societies that produced them, especially when the unearthed pieces bear inscriptions. Bronzes were the measure of wealth, status and power in the pre-Qin period. It is therefore no surprise that in the Confucian rites—a body of social regulations and ritual ceremonies with a religious basis that sought to preserve and formulate social order and harmony—bronzes played a key role. In ritual texts the possession and use of fixed numbers and assemblages of different types of bronze implements were prescribed for different ranks of nobility. Although archaeology has revealed that individuals frequently infringed the rites by being buried with more bronzes than their ritual entitlement, the assemblages of bronzes found in tombs still tell us much about the status of a tomb's occupant. In turn, the inscriptions on the bronzes indicate the name, title, rank and state of the owner, enabling historians to develop a sense of the geopolitical makeup of the Central Plains region of China in the pre-Qin period.
Fig. 2 Bronze yi with bullock's head unearthed in Cailou village by the Xinzheng Municipal Cultural Relics Management Bureau in 2005.
The Shang and Western Zhou dynasties are generally regarded as periods which produced some of the finest ancient Chinese bronzes. In mid August 2005 Xinhua News Agency reported the discovery at the Dasikong site in Anyang, Henan province, of a well-preserved aristocratic tomb dating back 3,000 years which contained a batch of 40 bronze ritual vessels. Dasikong is part of Yinxu, the site of the dynastic capital during the later period of the Shang dynasty. The discovery occurred in the course of the ongoing excavation at Dasikong by the Institute of Archaeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that commenced in 2004. The unearthed ritual bronzes included seven ding tripods of several different shapes, as well as various other types of containers for solid food and wine. Apart from the ritual bronzes, a number of bronze weapons, horse and chariot fittings, pottery and a small quantity of gold foil were unearthed. In addition to finding this tomb and a number of other aristocratic tombs, the excavators have uncovered the groundwork of a large building compound, as well as material, including "painted pottery" (caitao), extending back into the prehistoric period which provides rich data for developing a longer term view of the development of human society in the Anyang area prior to the advent of the Shang dynasty.
The discovery of major horse and chariot pits at Yinxu was reported in May 2005.
Fig. 3 Undecorated bronze pan or platter with two lug handles unearthed in Cailou village by the Xinzheng Municipal Cultural Relics Management Bureau in 2005.
In mid August, archaeologists from the Yan'an Cultural Relics Institute of Shaanxi announced the discovery of a late Shang dynasty "sheep's head bronze battle-axe", a rare type of weapon dated to the late-Shang and early Western Zhou periods. This discovery in Ganquan county extends our knowledge of the ancient bronze cultures of northern Shaanxi. The battle-axe is the first example found there of an item produced by what are termed in China the "northern bronze cultures" of the steppes. Northern bronzes are part of a continuum with what are traditionally termed Ordos bronzes. (See Fig. 1) The bronze battle-axe measures 21 cm in length and has a 13 cm wide blade. The weapon is decorated with what are called taotie patterns. The battle-axe was found in conjunction with a bronze dagger-axe, a bronze sword and a bronze ding tripod.
Fig. 4 Bronze dui with banded designs unearthed in Cailou village by the Xinzheng Municipal Cultural Relics Management Bureau in 2005.
Another major bronze discovery was announced by the Shanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute at the end of June 2005. Since the end of 2004 archaeologists from the institute have been conducting a salvage excavation in Hengshui village, Jiangxian county, in the wake of the reported robbery of a number of ancient tombs there in April 2004. By mid 2005, the excavation team had cleared three large tombs and undertaken preliminary work prior to the later excavation of a number of other tombs. Their six months of excavation revealed that the group of 3,000-year-old tombs belonged to the royal family of a state in the Western Zhou dynasty (1100-771 BCE). The tombs designated nos. M1 and M2 appear to belong to a husband and wife, who were probably the ruler of that state and his consort. This interpretation of the nature of these two tombs was based on the bronzes found in the tombs, which lie at a depth of about 17 metres underground.
More than 30 bronzes were found in there. According to Ji Kunzhang, a bronze specialist from the Shanxi institute's Houma work station, tomb M1 held more than 20 pieces, including five ding or tripods, hu, a yongzhong bell, and other pieces. The five ding make it clear that the owner was of very high status. Tomb M2 also held 16 bronzes including cooking vessels, kettles and bells. "The special bronze cooking vessels found in Tombs M1 and M2 suggest the owners might even be the first family of a kingdom," said Ji Kunzhang, an archaeologist from the institute. "There is also one bronze vessel of a unique form that none of the archaeologists involved in this excavation have ever seen before".
Fig. 5 Bronze yi with animal's head spout found in tomb M6 in Zhenghan Road, Xinzheng City, by the Xinzheng Work Station of the Henan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute.
Importantly, some of the bronzes found in Hengshui village—the ding tripods, pan, zun and a you with a handle—bear inscriptions. The number of characters in these various inscriptions totals nearly 230 characters, and these inscriptions will provide scholars will valuable information for studying the bronze culture in this area. Preliminary research indicates that this area was occupied by a polity the name of which has not previously been seen in historical accounts of the area.
Discoveries of bronzes also continue to be made in the district around Xinzheng city in Henan province, following the exciting finds made in the area 18 months previously. On 2 September 2005, China Cultural Relics News reported that two tombs of the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BCE) were hastily excavated by archaeologists of the Xinzheng Municipal Cultural Relics Management Bureau after local workers inadvertently uncovered them in the course of digging in Cailou village, under the jurisdiction of Lihe township in Xinzheng. From the two small tombs three unusual bronzes were recovered: a bronze yi with a bullock's head (See Fig. 2), an undecorated bronze pan vessel or platter with two lug handles (See Fig. 3) and a bronze dui with a pankui dragon design.(See Fig. 4)
Fig. 6 Bronze dui found in tomb M6 in Zhenghan Road, Xinzheng City, by the Xinzheng Work Station of the Henan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute.
These bronzes were almost identical to examples found in April-May 2004 by the Xinzheng Work Station of the Henan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute and reported in the 2005:8 issue of Wenwu (Cultural Relics). The earlier discovered bronzes were among five found in tomb M6, located just off State Freeway 107 near its junction with Zhenghan Road—situated at the north-western corner of the site of the ancient city that served in turn as the capital of the Zheng and Han states during the Eastern Zhou dynasty.
The example of the yi, a vessel that resembles a sauceboat, found in 2005, has a spout in the shape of a calf's head and a rounded belly. It rests on three legs; the front two resemble animal hooves but the hind leg is decorated with an animal's head. The overall length of the piece discovered this year is 35.1cm, compared with the similar example found last year (See Fig. 5), which was 29.6 cm in length.
The dui is a warming and serving vessel for food, and the examples discovered this year and last year at Xinzheng both feature complex designs. The dui vessel found in 2004 (See Fig. 6) in tomb M6 features open-work handles and lid attachments, as well as bands of ornate designs on the body and lid including the pankui dragon motif, triangular cloud whorls, floral motifs and triangular geometric motifs.
None of the new Xinzheng bronzes are reported to have inscriptions, but they are fine examples of intricately decorated pieces in plain and simple standard bronze vessel shapes. The tombs in Xinzheng were dated to the Spring and Autumn period because of the typological features of the bronze vessels, but the vessels are not described specifically as ritual vessels.