The problem of determining ethnicity part 2: Fu Hao 妇好 and the Jin 晋 consorts at Beizhao

April 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

The case of male tomb M54 is unusual because most tomb occupants who are thought to be of different ethnic origins to the Shang and Zhou are female.  The assumption is that the Shang and Zhou elites married these females to consolidate power or to build ties with neighboring states or groups. As with tomb M54, the theoretical position of scholars who maintain that a female might be foreign rests on the presence of foreign objects inside the grave, and that these objects denoted the tomb occupant’s ethnicity.

In the Late Shang, royal consort Fu Hao (whose tomb was excavated in the late 1970’s) is commonly regarded as an outsider, as the tomb contained a number of foreign objects such as bronze mirrors, knives, bow-shaped objects and horse fittings (two bridles).

In the Zhou, several of the consorts to the Jin state lineage heads are also thought to have been from the Northern Zone. Tomb M113 (at the site of Beizhao) contained two bronze vessels which appear to have been modelled after ceramic pottery types found in the north.

1992_05_19.jpg (540×447)

A few of the Jin consort tombs also contained ornate and very unusual miniature bronze boxes (about 10cm long and 6cm high).

The exact function of these small bronze pieces is unknown (one idea is that they served as jewelery containers – in reality this seem unlikely). The argument runs that these unusual pieces were made for females who originated from outside of the Zhou realm.

However, while no male tomb contained similar bronze boxes, a few graves did yield gold belt fittings which almost certainly were foreign in origin and which a few archaeologists trace back to fashions in the Middle East. Moreover, these tombs also contained vessels in realistic animal form – a style which Rawson (2010) and Jacobsen see as originating in the north.

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Thus, male tombs contained exotica of their own. When such pieces occur in male tombs, they are seen as evidence of the control of exotica to maintain power and status through difference. By contrast, when exotic objects occur in female tombs, they are seen seen as denoting the tomb occupant’s ethnic identity.

Some points on which to reflect:

1. The case of tomb M54 at Anyang shows that the simple correlation between foreign objects and ethnicity in burials is problematic. Can we continue to maintain this theoretical proposition?

2. How many foreign objects make a tomb occupant foreign? Is one object enough?

3. Why would mourners want to deposit objects to denote ethnic identity? Was ethnicity a salient part of one’s identity?

4. Is the different interpretation for the presence of these objects in male and female tombs due to modern preconceived gender bias notions – men were powerful and women were nothing more than objects to be traded and exchanged and lacked any identity of their own?

Gender differences between Europe and China

April 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

The recent (media-sensationalised) story of a male who was buried in a way usually reserved for females got me thinking about some of the stark gender differences between this burial, and by extension those of the Corded Ware culture of Europe, and those of Bronze Age China (the Shang and Zhou – roughly between 1600-500 BC).

From news.com.au

According to the Daily Telegraph:

The male body – said to date back to between 2900-2500BC – was discovered buried in a way normally reserved only for women of the Corded Ware culture in the Copper Age.

The skeleton was found in a Prague suburb in the Czech Republiwith its head pointing eastwards and surrounded by domestic jugs, rituals only previously seen in female graves.

“From history and ethnology, we know that people from this period took funeral ritesvery seriously so it is highly unlikely that this positioning was a mistake,” said lead archaeologist Kamila Remisova Vesinova.

“Far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transsexual,” she added.

According to Corded Ware culture which began in the late Stone Age and culminated in the Bronze Age, men were traditionally buried lying on their right side with their heads pointing towards the west, and women on their left sides with their heads pointing towards the east. Both sexes would be put into a crouching position.

The men would be buried alongside weapons, hammers and flint knives as well as several portions of food and drink to accompany them to the other side.

Women would be buried with necklaces made from teeth, pets, copper earrings, as well as jugs and an egg-shaped pot placed near the feet.

A post by Rosemary Joyce (http://ancientbodies.wordpress.com/2011/04/07/gay-caveman-wrecking-a-perfectly-good-story/) discusses some of the problems with the terminology banded around by the media and the interpretations of the burial as reported in the media.

What is of interest to me is the seemingly strict gender distinctions in Europe at this time relating to the positioning of the body in the tomb and the array of grave goods buried with the deceased. Due to these strict burial traditions and the way in which the distinctions were rigidly upheld, any discrepancy in the  manner of the burial is immediately noticeable, and leads to various interpretations (third-sex, etc). I suppose that one would call these burial traditions highly gendered, with gender acting as a fundamental structuring principle at burial.

By contrast, in Bronze Age Chinese burials – by this I mean those the Shang and Zhou Dynasties of the Central Plains in Henan/Shaanxi – gender seems to have been a much less important structuring principle than in European burials.

Perhaps the biggest gender difference between China and Europe was the position of the body and the left:right dichotomy. Both males and females in the Shang and Zhou periods were interred in a supine position. The bodies might point north or south and the head might face east or west. In short, there are no observable and rigid differences between the positioning of the body in male and in female tombs.

Another big difference between prehistoric Europe and China was the way in which weapons and ornaments were interred in male and female graves. In the Zhou, bronze weapons are only found in male tombs. However, both males and females were interred with a selection of jade, stone and bone ornaments. At the Yu site of Baoji, both men and women were buried with bronze hairpins and combs, and sets of beads that were placed on the body of the deceased. Thus, the same ornament types were placed in both male and female tombs.

Moreover, it appears (correct me if I am wrong) that females in Europe were deposited with a selection of ornaments that relate very specifically to female tombs (earrings, etc). In the Shang and Zhou, there are no discernible object types that relate specifically to female burials. And, objects found in females burials (bronze vessels, chariot fittings) also occur in male burials.

So what gender differences are observable in Shang and Zhou burials? In the Zhou, bronze weapons, bronze tools (chisel, adze, spade) and bronze bells are found only in a few male burials. The objects do not always occur together in a tomb, but when one of more of these object types are found in a Zhou burial, the tomb occupant is always a male (ascertained through skeletal testing).

At the same time, a large proportion of male burials in the Zhou did not contain weapons, tools or bells. Even though most Zhou cemeteries have only been partially excavated, it is clear that aside from the few male burials with bronze weapons, tools and bells, most male and female burials are remarkably similar in structure and layout. These male and female burial yielded primarily a selection of bronze vessels and bronze chariot and horse fittings.

Gender, therefore, seems to have been much less of a structuring principle in Zhou tombs than in Corded Ware culture tombs. Gender differences in the Zhou are observable and indeed pronounced at burial, manifested through three categories of bronze object types. But, these objects are confined to a small group of elite male tombs, and are not always found together within a burial deposit. There does seem to be some relationship between the expression of gender at burial and the social position of the tomb occupant (a member of the elite). In other words, at burial,  gender seems to have been marked out in a few elite burials.

With this data in mind, I keep thinking about the the validity of the application of biological sex (reproductive capabilities) as the starting point for gender analysis in Bronze Age Chinese studies. The result of such a (modern) application is that material culture becomes linked to biological sex – a man is buried with a weapon because he has a penis, which categorised his as a man, and not because the status of warriorhood created the notion of a what is was to be a man.

The problem of determining ethnicity: the case of Shang tomb M54 at Anyang

April 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

I came across a very surprising YouTube video which problematises some of the assumptions and theoretical notions floating around in Chinese Bronze Age studies at the moment.

Recently, questions about the extent to which a tomb occupant’s ethnic identity might be ascertained from the archaeological record, or more specifically ascertained from burial goods, have become popular within studies of the Chinese Bronze Age. As more detailed evidence comes to light of possible interactions between the Late Shang Dynasty, who resided at Anyang (Henan Province) from roughly 1250 to 1045 BC, and the nomadic peoples to the north (occupying modern-day areas of Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, Liaoning, southern Mongolia) – and the influences of these mobile peoples on the Shang and their material culture – so scholars have begun to speculate about the possible ethnic identity of individuals who were interred with objects seemingly influenced from the northern zone. The theoretical proposition is that foreign objects denoted the ethnicity of the deceased.

The location of the Late Shang site of Anyang, Henan Province

Northern Zone sites

The case of tomb M54 at Anyang provides us with a fascinating example of both the pitfalls and the potential of such studies.

Generally, the chariot, chariot and horse riding paraphernalia, bronze knives with animal-pommels and ring-pommels, socketed weapons (as opposed to hafted weapons), jingles and rattles, bronze mirrors, and realistic animal forms, all of which appear at Anyang, are regarded as northern or foreign objects or motifs, which were appropriated and adopted by the Late Shang elites.

Bronze animal-headed knives from Anyang

Bow-shaped object (possibly a reins holder)

a – Animal-headed knife

b – Bronze mirrors

c – Bow-shaped object

These bronze objects were sometimes deposited in rich tombs which are usually interpreted as housing members of the Shang elite. The assumption that these tomb occupants who were buried with such bronze objects might have been of northern descent is based tenuously on the direct correlation between the ethnicity of the deceased and the objects placed in his or her tomb. In short, a person buried buried with northern objects was a northerner. 

Tomb M54 at Anyang appears to turn these assumptions and theoretical propositions on their heads.

The grave was published in 2001 and is one of the most lavish tombs to be excavated in recent years, stirring much excitement in Chinese archaeological circles.

 

Below is a selection of the fabulous bronze ritual vessels (used for offering food and drink to the ancestors) and weapons found in tomb M54:

 

The ritual vessels and some of the weapons were inscribed with the title Ya Chang – possibly the name of the tomb occupant.

Alongside the vast quantities of bronze weaponry and other bronze objects such as bells and tools, the tomb also contained six bow-shaped objects.

One of the bow-shaped objects (pictured above) carried terminals in the form of realistic animal heads and mosaic or inlay decoration on the main body. The tomb also contained animal-headed knives, similar to those pictured above.

Moreover, it is also likely that the coffin was decorated in gold leaf. Gold was a feature of the northern peoples and is rarely found in Bronze Age China. (When gold is found in Shang or Zhou tombs, it is taken as exotica.)

Thus, based on the presence of gold leaf decoration, six bow-shaped objects and various animal-headed knives in tomb M54, and taking the theoretical proposition that individuals buried with foreign or exotic objects might be outsiders in origin, one might reasonably conclude that the tomb occupant of M54 was a northerner.

Now watch the documentary (part 5 of 7) on YouTube (ignore the title “warrior queen” and other dramatizations) which discusses the occupant of tomb M54 and the tests carried out on the skeletal remains from the grave:

[youtube-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MVvOHrGE-s&feature=related]

The results suggest that the tomb occupant (Ya Chang) did not come from Anyang! However, he did not come from the north either. In fact, Ya Chang appears to have been a southerner – possibly from the Xinyang region – 400km south of Anyang.

Therefore, while Ya Chang was an outsider, he did not originate from where the exotica might lead us to believe. In short, the tomb occupant was a southerner interred with a few northern objects. The assumed one-to-one correlation between foreign objects in a tomb and the ethnic origins of the tomb occupant is, in this case, not accurate. And, I believe that this rupture now means that we are on very shaky ground in following such a line of reasoning.

At the same time, tomb 54, the presence of Northern Zone objects at Anyang and the fact that chariots and horses would have initially required trained people such as ostlers and chariot repairmen – all of whom were possibly northerners who resided at Anyang – suggests that the Shang site was composed of peoples from across present-day China. Indeed, one would not expect Anyang to have been homogeneous in its population.

However, using burial goods to determine the origins of tomb occupants is problematic as tomb M54 shows.

The wider implication of this study is other graves where the tomb occupants have been interpreted as foreigners through this type of reasoning need careful reconsideration. I will discuss some of these tombs in later posts.

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