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One of the Warring States Period graves found in Sanmenxia City in central China of a total of 260 that have stunned Chinese archaeologists.		Source: CGTN

260 Warring States Period Graves Stun Archaeologists in Central China

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Archaeologists digging near the city of Sanmenxia in central China’s Henan province have uncovered a massive graveyard of ancient burials, traceable to the Warring States Period that lasted from 481 to 221 BC. More than 260 tombs have been identified, and there is little doubt that even more graves are nearby awaiting discovery.

This exciting find was announced on the China Global Television Network (CGTN) on December 30. It came as a result of an exploratory excavation ordered by the local government, in anticipation of an upcoming construction project that could have damaged ancient ruins or artifacts.

"These tombs from the Warring States Period were arranged in an orderly way,” explained excavation leader Yan Fei, who is employed by the Sanmenxia Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. “They might belong to a planned cemetery."

Chinese archaeologists working at the Warring States Period gravesite discovered in central China’s Sanmenxia City. (CGTN)

Chinese archaeologists working at the Warring States Period gravesite discovered in central China’s Sanmenxia City . ( CGTN)

100 of the Warring States Period Graves Have Been Examined

So far, about 100 of these rectangular Warring States Period tombs have been opened and explored. An impressive quantity of burial items has been recovered from these gravesites, including rare ancient chimes that had not been found in the region for several decades. Some of the chimes were made from bronze while others were made from stone, and the bronze chimes were the first of their type ever found in the area.

Other burial goods discovered in the graves included pieces of bronzeware, jewelry and other personal items manufactured from jade and agates, objects made from animal bones, and various types of bronze weapons.

“The discovery of these ancient tombs will provide valuable information for the study of cultural features in the western Henan in the pre-Qin period (pre-221 B.C.), the livelihoods of the people at that time and the layout of cemeteries in the early Warring States Period," said Zheng Lichao, who heads the Sanmenxia Institute.

During the Warring States Period, the lands of Henan province were divided among three separate states: the Wei state in the north, the Chu state to the south, and the Han state in the center. The cluster of gravesites found in Sanmenxia would have likely been in Han territory, meaning the people buried there would have likely lived in that state.

China’s Warring States Period was bloody and long. (karen wyatt / slideserve)

China’s Warring States Period was bloody and long. (karen wyatt / slideserve)

The Warring States Period Life: A Time of Violence and Death

While the discovery of so many extremely old tombs in the Sanmenxia region was unexpected, it wasn’t exactly shocking, given the events that occurred in China between the fifth and third centuries BC. This era was known as the Warring States period for a good reason, as military conflict during the era was widespread and bloody.

Following the loss and influence of the Eastern Zhou ruling dynasty in the late fifth century BC, the political situation in the formerly united China degenerated into disorder and chaos—but only for a while. Out of this chaos emerged a new and different kind of order, that saw 100 small states in Chinese territory fall under the control of one of seven separate kingdoms. These moderately sized but militarily potent kingdoms included Qin, Qi, Han, Chu, Wei, Yan, and what remained of the Zhou state.

If all had been willing to accept control over limited areas of territory, the conquering of the 100 smaller states might have ended a troubling era of violence and conflict. But each of the new states had significant territorial ambitions, which they were ready to pursue by any means necessary. The leaders of each proto-nation saw themselves as rightful heirs to the Zhou throne, believing they were the individuals most capable of ruling over a newly reunited China. Each essentially wanted to replace the now-weakened Zhou Dynasty, and all were willing to make war as widely and as frequently as they needed to in order to fulfill this destiny.  

All of these states were well-armed with increasingly sophisticated bronze and iron weapons. They organized large armies through universal male conscription, with some of the biggest states supporting armies of nearly one million men. They also had cavalries that numbered up to 10,000 strong, filled with skilled archers and riders.

These states organized their militaries for the purposes of battle, not as deterrents to keep their opponents at bay. During this period more than 300 separate wars were fought between individual states or constantly shifting alliances of states, and at one point or another each of the seven states was at war with each of the others.

The huge armies and cavalries of the various Warring States were well-polished and ruthlessly efficient killing machines, hardened by extensive battlefield experience and the high expectations of commanders and comrades. In China during these times men were expected to demonstrate their courage and prove their worthiness in combat, creating a coincidental parallel with the famous militarily focused city-state of Sparta in ancient Greece (Sparta’s rise to prominence occurred simultaneously with the Warring States period in China).

Over the course of nearly three centuries during the Warring States Period, fighting and dying in battle was a normal experience for men in China. Civilians were also killed in disturbingly high numbers, as armies relied on scorched earth tactics to subdue their enemies, viewing anyone and anything as a legitimate military target. The largest battles of the era were reminiscent of the type of warfare associated with World War I, meaning they were wars of attrition where the loss of life was appallingly high even though few if any territorial gains were ever made.

In the latter stages of the third century BC, the Qin state finally gained the decisive upper hand on its neighbors, toppling the dominoes of the other Chinese states one by one. China was unified once again under the control of the Qin Dynasty , with the constant warfare finally ending as a result of the Qin state’s ascension.

In the Battle of Yique, which pitted the forces of the Qin state against an alliance of the Wei and the Han states, as many as 240,000 people may have been killed. (Welcome to China)

In the Battle of Yique, which pitted the forces of the Qin state against an alliance of the Wei and the Han states, as many as 240,000 people may have been killed . ( Welcome to China )

Excavating China’s Darkest Age

There is no telling exactly how many people died prematurely during the Warring States period, among soldiers and the civilian population. But the total casualties are known to have numbered in the millions.

During the period’s largest conflict, the Battle of Yique that pitted the forces of the Qin state against an alliance of the Wei and the Han states, as many as 240,000 people may have been killed. One military leader, the Qin state general Bai Qi, was responsible for the deaths of approximately 890,000 people over the course of his 30-year career.

All of this killing converted the China of the Warring States Period into one giant graveyard. Archaeologists searching the underground landscapes for ancient tombs and burial goods from the first millennium BC are truly exploring fertile ground, as a result of the horrific and relentless warfare that was a constant feature of that deeply troubled time.

Excavations at the newly discovered Sanmenxia site will continue, and it won’t be at all surprising if many more ancient tombs are ultimately uncovered.

Top image: One of the Warring States Period graves found in Sanmenxia City in central China of a total of 260 that have stunned Chinese archaeologists. Source: CGTN

By Nathan Falde

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