Relics from the Niuheliang Goddess Temple, the most mysterious site of the ancient Hongshan
The Neolithic Hongshan culture has revealed itself to researchers through its long-preserved bounty of jade artifacts, its ceremonial monuments, its burial traditions, and its influence in the origins of the Chinese civilization. The Hongshan underground Goddess Temple housed beautiful and mysterious relics of unknown deities, and larger-than-life statues.
Discovered in 1983, it can be said that no other site typifies and imparts the Hongshan spiritual heritage more than Niuheliang, featuring an underground Goddess Temple complex, ancient relics, cairns, mounds, altars and graves. Niuheliang is an outstanding example of “holy sacrificial land” of the early period of human civilization, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) writes.
The C-shaped jade dragon of Hongshan Culture. Wikimedia, Creative Commons
Niuheliang Archaeological Site
The sprawling Niuheliang Neolithic archaeological site, spanning 50 square kilometers (19-square-miles) in Northeast China, is comprised of multiple locations with monumental structures. Located in the Manchurian province of Liaoning, the site dates back 5,000 – 5,500 years. The ancient Niuheliang site was reserved for religious purposes, ceremonies, burials, and rituals, as no evidence of dwellings or settlements have been discovered there. UNESCO reports that the area has been separated into several different categories by researchers, including: “the Goddess Temple, the platform, the stone mound, the sacrificial altar, the building foundation, and the cellar.”
Niuheliang is the largest and most well preserved of Hongshan sites. It has revealed to researchers the largest number of remains and richest cultural relics, and combined with its sister sites – Hongshanhou and Weijiawopu – was declared a UNESCO world heritage cultural property in 2013.
Neolithic pottery vessel, Hongshan Culture. Wikimedia, Creative Commons
One of the more notable monuments at Niuheliang is the Goddess Temple, so named by archaeologists who discovered a clay female head sculpture with eyes inlaid with jade. The temple was an underground religious complex made of earth and wood structures and chambers. Wikipedia notes that the walls were painted in murals, and it housed clay figurines “as large as three times the size of real-life humans.” It is surmised the huge figures are deities, but they do not match representations found in any other Chinese culture. The larger figurines were made from wood and straw and then covered in clay.
Other artifacts unearthed at the temple were sacrificial potteries and animal sculptures, such as dragons, pig-dragons, and tortoises. Pigs, dragons, and eagles generally featured in the culture’s grave goods. Pig bones have been found buried with humans in graves, and Hongshan artifacts are some of the earliest examples of jade working. Fertility was a major theme in their work, with fetus and pregnant women objects featuring repeatedly.
Liu Guoxiang, researcher at the Institute of Archaeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences tells National Geographic, “In ancient times Earth goddesses were regarded as symbols of fertility, vitality, and the continuity of an ethnic group. This grand-size Goddess Temple and goddess figures found inside prove that goddess worship had a leading role in prehistoric Chinese religion.”
The temple is deemed one of the earliest sacrificial sites in Northeast Asia.
14 stone mounds dot hilltops at the Niuheliang site, each containing multiple graves representing a clear hierarchy. UNESCO reports, “First, a large grave is located at the center, dominating the other graves. This central grave, spaciously constructed, is deeply anchored into its rock foundation. A stone coffin, whose inner wall is neatly constructed, contains a variety of jade articles without other burial objects such as potteries and stone objects.” Jade objects were prized, and are indicative of status.
The second and third level graves have fewer jade grave goods, but are spacious and as well constructed as the center burials. These large clusters of prehistoric graves demonstrate a clear system of social rankings among people.
The central graves of the mounds match the scale and splendor of the later period emperor mausoleums.
Hongshan platform at Niuheliang (Left) and central burial with carved jades from another platform (Right). Credit: Liaoning Sheng Wenwu Kaogu Yanjiusuo.
The Niuheliang site is sometimes compared to Britain’s Stonehenge, as Niuheliang may have been used by the Neolithic priestesses to predict the solstices and equinoxes, as well as other astronomical phenomena. Standing stones at Niuheliang altars form concentric circles, with stone piles located at the centers, suggesting to experts that complex rituals worshipping heaven and earth may have been preformed there.
University of Denver professor Robert Stencel says the precisely aligned structures may have been used to measure, “key solar and lunar rise and set points, which would make them usable today for simple seasonal calendar keeping and the beginning of study of eclipse cycles,” reports National Geographic.
Research continues on the potential astronomical history of Niuheliang.
The well-preserved relics and structures of the Goddess Temple and the Niuheliang site at large provide exemplary evidence of a sophisticated prehistoric culture, and a view of how they understood and shaped the earth and sky around them.
Featured Image: Painted clay goddess face with eyes inset with jade, found at Goddess Temple, Niuheliang. Credit: Chinese Archaeology Museum at Niuheliang
By Liz Leafloor