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The Chinese government recently announced four updates from major digs focussed on ancient China. Photo: SCMP composite

Major breakthroughs at 4 archaeological sites in China offer window into early days of Chinese civilisation

  • China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration recently made public updates about four different archaeological sites
  • They all offered insights into the Xia and Shang civilisations, two of the earliest Chinese civilisations

In the traditional telling of ancient Chinese history, two dynasties hold special significance as being the heart of where civilisation began to emerge.

The Xia civilisation (circa 2070- 1600BC) is often called the first Chinese dynasty, although evidence of its existence is largely the result of archaeology and second-hand ancient texts. The Shang civilisation (1600-1046BC) is the first Chinese ruling dynasty in the written historical record.

In mid-September, the National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) held a press conference to update the public on four significant developments at major Xia and Shang archaeological sites.

Pottery remains from one of China’s most important archaeology sites. Photo: CGTN

“The four important achievements of this briefing show the historical process of China’s prehistoric civilisation and the formation and development of an early state,” wrote the NCHA in a press release.

An ancient gold funerary mask

This ancient funerary mask probably covered the wearer’s entire face. Photo: CGTN
In September, archaeologists in Henan province in central China announced that they had uncovered a gold mask that covered the entire face so “spirits could remain whole”.

The mask is the most striking artefact found in a dig that revealed over 200 other burial objects, including bronze wares and jade artefacts.

The mask is believed to predate other gold masks found in the famous Sanxingdui archaeology site in Sichuan, in southwest China. The Shang dynasty mask was found in the tomb of a noble and is believed to have been used at a funeral.

“Although this gold mask is older than those unearthed from the Sanxingdui Ruins, we still need more evidence and a larger amount of archaeological discoveries to confirm a direct connection between the Shang city ruins and the Sanxingdui Ruins,” said Chen Lüsheng, a researcher at the National Museum of China, in an interview with state-run newspaper Global Times.

Learning about China’s first great city

Scientists in Erlitou have made significant efforts in mapping one of the earliest Chinese cities ever found. Photo: CGTN
While not a new find, the Erlitou archaeological site is often called “China’s first great city”, and it is the most substantial evidence that the Xia dynasty did exist.

The recent findings helped archaeologists understand the layout of the city, including what appear to be ancient “highways” and pedestrian roadways that could have been the ancient equivalent of modern pavement.

They also found a host of pottery and workshops that were probably used to process bones and horns for other uses.

The NCHA said: “The purpose of the excavation is to explore issues such as the early national capital system, the economy, etiquette and funeral system” of this early Chinese civilisation.

An ancient city defence system

A digitalisation of an ancient moat that probably surrounded the city of Houchengzui in Inner Mongolia. Photo: CGTN
Excavations of a 4,000-year-old ancient city in Inner Mongolia have helped paint a picture of how the residents defended themselves. The archaeologists unveiled a complicated fortification system.

According to the NCHA, two underground passages were discovered, and scientists believe they were used both for offence in defence during battle. Additionally, the city appears to have been surrounded by a moat.

The site is important because it is the most extensive Neolithic site from that region of Inner Mongolia, providing a fantastic source of information about how those early people lived.

An ancient border town between central and western China

This city in Shanxi province may have acted as an outpost between two major regions in China. Photo: CGTN

Archaeologists think a site in Shanxi province in northern China, believed to be between 3,700 and 4,000 years old, was likely a frontier border pass between western and central China.

It is also the oldest known Longshan settlement along the Yellow River in Shanxi. The Longshan culture was an early civilisation famous for developing remarkable pottery.

Zhang Guanghui, a researcher with the Shanxi Archaeology Academy, told China Daily, a state-owned newspaper, that the city was filled with outposts and its structure was “rigidly planned”. This, he said, indicates it might have been a strategic outpost connecting eastern and western China, which was “pivotal for society then”.

The NCHA said the town likely “controlled the traffic arteries on the Shanxi-Shaanxi Plateau”.