Chinese Find Ancient Xianyang, Lost Capital of the Qin Dynasty
A team of archaeologists from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology have been busy for the past few years working on an assignment worth envying, reports China Daily. Deep in the Chinese central interior, they have been carrying out excavations at a site where the ancient Xianyang capital was once located. Modern Xianyang, just next door, is a densely populated metropolis and home to a major university. But ancient Xianyang was once the capital of China and thus much more prestigious. It was the capital city of the fabled Qin dynasty, which unified the country in 221 BC and subsequently ruled as China’s first imperial dynasty.
The Qin dynasty’s ill-fated 15-year reign ended with the sacking of their capital city, ancient Xianyang in 206 BC. Paradoxically, despite founding an imperial political system that endured for 2,143 years, the Qin dynasty was the shortest of all China’s ruling dynasties. But its outsize influence is undeniable, which is why the archaeologists involved in the ongoing excavations at Xianyang are thrilled to be involved in such an historically enlightening project.
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Zhang Yanglizheng and Xu Weihong, a researcher from the academy and leader of the team, study relics found at the ancient Xianyang site. (Zhang Xiping / China Daily)
Uncovering The Marvels Of Long-Lost Ancient Xianyang
While archaeologists already knew where the buried capital city of the Qin dynasty was located, they still had to survey more than 16 million square feet (five million square meters) of land before honing in on the spot they are now busy exploring.
“It took us two years to find the area of ancient Xianyang where we are now working,” said Zhang Yanglizheng, one of the eight archaeologists from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology who’ve been assigned to the site. Excavations at the 43-square mile (70-square kilometer) site of ancient Xianyang began in earnest in 2014 and have remained under the supervision of the Shaanxi Academy during the entire time.
Since digging began, the archaeologists have unearthed thousands of fascinating artifacts and relics, some intact and others in fragments. The buildings they’ve discovered include the emperor’s palaces, royal storehouses, administrative headquarters, private residences, cemeteries, and workshops.
Most notably, they’ve uncovered the distinctive footprints of 47 large-scale structures, spread out over the length of a sprawling ancient metropolis that spanned extensive sections of the north and south banks of the Wei River.
The size and scale of these building projects reveals the immense ambition that motivated Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor and the founder of the Qin Dynasty. Like other authoritarians, he strove to highlight his greatness and pay tribute to the magnificence of his achievements through architecture, building vast and imposing monuments that would endure for eternity and help ensure his place in history.
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Xu Weihong working on a vase found at the ancient Xianyang site. (Zhang Xiping / China Daily)
The Archaeologists Also Found Huge Buildings And Avenues
One of the ancient city’s prime palaces was discovered just a few hundred meters to the north of the main archaeological workstation. This three-story grand edifice was constructed on a massive elevated platform built on tons of impacted earth.
"On the first floor there were winding corridors,” said Xu Weihong, the lead archaeologist in the Shaanxi Academy project. “The second floor was home to smaller rooms, while the third floor housed the main hall of the palace, which covered more than 60 square meters. Wall tiles and washbasins have been found on the second floor … we can see the huge scale of the palace and gain a sense of just how luxurious it was.”
Another important discovery was the ancient city’s main street, called “Empire Avenue” by Xu, which was unearthed in 2018. It was approximately 165 feet (50 meters) wide, and covered with a multitude of imprinted wagon tracks that revealed the heavy traffic load it must have borne on any given day. Two other long, wide avenues that passed through ancient Xianyang have also been found, verifying that the city was indeed a hectic and busy place.
To put in perspective just how large the ancient Xianyang was, Xu points out that the 43-square mile (70-square-kilometer) section her team has been exploring for the past few years covers just half of the existing area of the ancient city at its peak.
"Xianyang was an ancient capital city irrigated by the River Wei and divided by the waterway into northern and southern areas," she said. "The city was long and narrow, with the longer side extending north to south. At present, we are focusing our work on the northern part along the riverbank."
Zhang Yanglizheng, from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology, right, and a worker from the local relic’s bureau, examine a tile found in the ruins. (Zhang Xiping / China Daily)
The Science Of Archaeology And The Art Of Interpretation
One 2018 find that particularly delighted Zhang was a massive deposit of more than 1300 lbs. (600 kilograms) of ox bones, which was located at an excavated settlement near the main archaeological work station. Many of the bones were perforated with rectangular holes, indicating they were intended for use as decorative items.
“There were many finished and unfinished works,” Zhang said. “We didn’t know how these products were completed before, but the bones tell us how each process was carried out. They matter more to us than some objects that have been unearthed intact.”
For Zhang, the delights are found in the details.
“They are all perfect artworks in our eyes,” he explained. "I see the wisdom of ancient people here. Finding these objects from ancient people's lives is very interesting and much more fun than unearthing tombs."
According to team leader Xu, archaeologists must unleash their imaginations to fill in the gaps that inevitably exist between physical discoveries and a true understanding of what they represent. Only through imagination can archaeologists begin to adopt the perspective of the cultures that designed, constructed, and used ancient objects and structures.
“We are definitely not hunting for treasures when we excavate a tomb,” she declared. “My work as an archaeologist is aimed at giving the ancient people a voice. It is very important to understand them through the objects we find.”
From the merger of discovery and imagination, vivid portraits of ancient lives can be reconstructed. Archaeology starts with long-lost objects, but bears its most important fruits through its interpretations, which are based partly on scientific analysis and partly on finely-tuned human intuition.
So it must be when exploring the history and culture of long-lost civilizations, which in this case are represented by a highly influential political dynasty that from an historical perspective rose and fell in the blink of an eye.
Top image: Researchers from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology work at the ancient Xianyang site, Shaanxi province. Source: Zhang Jie / China Daily
By Nathan Falde