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Horse buried with the dead, and decorations of shell strings at Anyang.  Source: Anyang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology)

Unique Bronze Age Clan Cemetery Excavated in Anyang, China

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After two years of excavations a 3,000-year-old clan cemetery containing the treasure-laden tombs of early social elites has been uncovered in central China. Located in Anyang, the northernmost city of the Henan province in China, the tomb has been dated to the Shang (Yin) Dynasty, which is the earliest ruling dynasty of China. Having emerged during the Chinese Bronze Age, in the second millennium BC, these powerful tribal rulers were known for their developments in military technologies, mathematics, astronomy and the arts.

Aerial view of the Anyang archaeological site in China’s Henan Province. Source: Anyang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

Aerial view of the Anyang archaeological site in China’s Henan Province. Source: Anyang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

The Might of the Ce Clan at Anyang

The Bronze Age clan cemetery was located only 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) from the ancient capital of Yinxu, better known as the “ruins of Yin” at Anyang. Founded around 1300 BC by the dynasty's 20th king, Pan Geng, Yinxu was the state capital for another 255 years and the site hosts the ruins of a grand palace and royal temple.

On January 6th 2022, the Anyang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology said in a news release that the archaeological site contained “18 building foundations, 24 tombs, four horse and chariot pits, and a number of remarkably intact relics, including jade and stone items”, as well as bronze ware inscribed with the character Ce.

This name refers to a clan called Ce that existed during the Shang Dynasty . The researchers are currently trying to ascertain the social status of the clan, including their division of labor and their relationship with the Shang royal family.

One of the tombs unearthed at the Shaojiapeng site in Anyang, China. (Anyang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology)

One of the tombs unearthed at the Shaojiapeng site in Anyang, China. ( Anyang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology )

The “Great Significance” of the Anyang Excavations

Kong Deming, director of the Institute, told CNN that the archaeologists identified six carriages and several warriors and horses buried with the dead, all discovered within deep pits. Furthermore, these items and other relics were finished with what were described as “luxurious decorations.” Some of the warriors wore “hats with shell strings and the foreheads of some horses were decorated with gold veneer and bronze backing,” according to Kong.

The institute director said these new finds were all “very rare” among the ancient discoveries of Anyang. But especially rare are the adornments around the carriages, which all reflect “the extraordinary status and power” of the carriage owners.

Kong explained that the findings include a diverse collection of artifacts, which are all relatively well-preserved. Thus, the director concluded that the discovery is of the “great significance to studies on the scope and layout of the Yin Ruins.”

Bronze artifacts unearthed during during the Anyang excavations in China. (Anyang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology)

Bronze artifacts unearthed during during the Anyang excavations in China. ( Anyang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology )

Putting Anyang into Perspective

Anyang is one of the seven ancient cities in China, but this is where the earliest conceptions of Chinese culture originated. So important is Anyang, archaeologically, that this is where the so-called “oracle bone scripts” were discovered, which represent the foundation of modern Chinese language.

Created in the late 2nd millennium BC, oracle bone script is the earliest known form of Chinese writing, and it is the earliest known direct ancestor of modern Chinese characters. The communication style is named as such, because the symbols were found engraved on animal bones that had been used in pyromantic (fire) divination.

While Anyang is perhaps most famous for the oracle bone script, these new discoveries of warrior graves, horses and carriages really do bring everything at the ancient city into perspective. The new discoveries collectively, represent advancements in military technologies and they illustrate what Shang was most famous for: warring constantly.

Violence Never Lasts Forever

History explains that the Shang infantry were armed with a variety of stone and bronze weaponry, including spears, pole-axes, pole-based dagger-axes, composite bows, and bronze or leather helmets. While horse-drawn chariot first appeared in China around 1200 BC during the reign of Wu Ding, the new site offers archaeologists a supreme chance to study the technologies that together made these early tanks hold together on the battlefield.

As powerful armies of Shang Dynasty warriors expanded the borders of their kingdom, they seized resources and prisoners of war , who were enslaved and used as offerings to gods in human sacrifices . According to History, the last king of the Shang lineage, King Di Xin, “was considered a cruel leader who enjoyed torturing people, leading to calls for the end of his rule.” Di Xin ultimately committed suicide by setting fire to his palace after being attacked by the incoming Zhou Dynasty , who would themselves go on to rule for the next 800 years.

Top image: Horse buried with the dead, and decorations of shell strings at Anyang.  Source: Anyang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology )

By Ashley Cowie

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