Inscriptions, bronze objects and funerary implications

May 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Much has been written on the inscriptions commonly found on bronze vessels and other bronze weapons at Anyang. The process of inscribing bronze ritual vessels and bronze weapons with clan insignia or titles (Fu 妇- consort; Ya 亚- a military position) appears to be unique to Anyang. Such inscriptions have not been found on vessels of the Erlitou and Erligang – the pre-Anyang periods of the Bronze Age. Thus, at Anyang, we see a new development with regards to writing and inscribing bronze objects.

Due to the position of the inscription on the bronze vessels, such as under the base or inside the rim, scholars have suggested that they were meant to be read by the ancestors and not necessarily by people who attended a ritual banquet for the ancestors. Jessica Rawson of Oxford University has posited that since the vessels were filled with food and drink, perhaps the ancestors were meant to read the inscriptions as they consumed the contents at a ritual banquet.

Moreover, scholars also surmise that the owner of the ritual vessels inscribed the pieces with his or her name or clan while he or she was alive. At the time of his or her funeral, vessels were then culled selectively from an altar and placed in the owner’s tomb.

However, Robert Bagley has proposed a different scenario, and one which has quite different implications for Shang funerals and the role of bronze ritual vessels and other bronze weapons.

Bagley, in his article on writing at Anyang, argues that there is little evidence to suggest that these vessels were used above ground. Unlike in the proceeding Zhou period where hoards of vessels have been recovered near the palace-temple area of the Zhouyuan, suggesting that such pieces rested on altars in temples, in the Late Shang at Anyang, no such comparable hoards have been unearthed.

Furthermore, if vessels were only used within a funerary setting, and were then buried with an individual, then it would follow that the individual to whom these vessels belonged (I use this term loosely as we should not envisage modern, capitalist notions of ownership in Bronze Age China) most probably did not cast them himself. Instead, we might be looking a scenario whereby a family cast a set of vessels for the deceased, dedicating them to him or her, and then buried them at the funeral.

The other possibility is that individuals cast vessels prior to their death and then perhaps stored them away, but this seems quite unlikely in reality.

The implication that bronze vessels were only used within funerary settings places enormous emphasis on funerals within the Late Shang period. An importance which we might have underestimated. Large amounts of resources and time would have been invested into objects which were then never seen again. The vessels would have had to have been molded, cast and decorated. Moreover, if ritual vessels categorised individuals and expressed identity, then a new identity would have been created at the funeral for the tomb occupant and perhaps for his or her family. These pieces then perhaps helped fix a particular image within the minds of the onlookers, and the funeral would have a pertinent occasion for creating identities.

Within Shang studies, the funeral is often treated as some fossilised indicator of social status and a passive reflection of the personal attributes of the deceased. As Bagley has also pointed out, funerals were prime settings for ancestral worship and veneration. Alongside this ancestral worship, a funeral might also have been about making some last comments on the tomb occupant and his or family. If the Shang believed that the deceased would use these vessels in the afterlife, then presumably the family would send him or her off with a fitting set of bronze vessels. Therefore, funerals may have been active arenas and were possibly competitive displays of power, and theatres for the (re)creation of identities.


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:


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.

Western Zhou (1045 BC – 771 BC) burials at Baoji

April 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

As the upcoming conference that I am attending is taking place at Baoji, I thought it would be appropriate to outline some of the fantastic and unique Western Zhou burials from the area.

There are three principal Early and Middle Western Zhou sites:

Zhuyuangou 竹園溝

Zhifangtou 紙坊頭

Riujiazhuang 茹家莊

Based on bronze inscriptions from the sites, the areas have been attributed to the Yu lineage (which mysteriously seems to disappear from the archaeological record in the Middle Western Zhou). The report on the Yu tombs was published in the 1980’s by Lu Liancheng and Hu Zhisheng.

One of the most unusual features at Baoji is that four of the tombs are double-occupant burials consisting of a lineage head and (presumably) his concubine interred in separate coffins in the same grave. No other Zhou cemetery site has yielded similar double-occupant burials, although it is common to find pairs of tombs (male-female) with graves clustered around them at other Zhou sites.


Tomb BZM7, Zhuyuangou. The principal tomb occupant was placed in the centre of the tomb with his concubine in the adjacent coffin. Zhongguo Shehui kexue Kaogu Yanjiusuo 中国社会科学考古研究所 2004: 120, fig. 3-27


Tomb BZM7 measured 4.3 meters long x 3.2 meters narrowing to 2.7 meters  wide x 4.3 meters deep. The principal tomb owner was placed in one outer coffin and two inner coffins. The outer coffin was 1.3 meters wide x 2.5 meters long x 0.85 meters high. The first inner coffin measured 2.2 meters long x 1.1 meters wide. The second inner coffin measured 2 meters long x 0.9 meters wide. The coffin was covered in red pigment.

The left side of the er ceng tai was wider than the right side in order to accommodate the smaller outer coffin adjacent to the principal tomb owner’s coffin. Both coffins were about 10 cm apart. The smaller outer coffin was 2.2 meters long x 0.5 meters wide x 0.45 meters high. The surface of the outer coffin was level with the bottom of the er ceng tai. The difference between the floor of the principal tombs owner’s coffin and the adjacent coffin was about 0.4 meters. Inside the outer coffin was a small inner coffin measuring about 1.8 meters long x 0.45 meters wide.

The principal tomb owner’s bronze vessels were placed on the er ceng tai. A second group of bronze vessels was placed on the left side of the er ceng tai, next to the concubine’s coffin. Other bronze object such as hairpins, combs and spoons accompanied the concubine’s set of bronze ritual vessels.

Objects were placed on the lid of the principal tomb owner’s outer coffin, but not on the lid of the concubine’s outer coffin. On the top left hand corner were horse objects and a bow shaped object (possibly a reins holder). On the middle of the outer coffin were other bronze objects. On the bottom left corner were further chariot and horse fittings.

In the principal tomb owner’s inner coffin were bronze objects, jade objects and beads. Between the concubine’s outer and inner coffins were bronze bells, shells and a bronze ladle.

At the bottom of the grave were four ceramic guan vessels near the principal tomb owner and five ceramic guan vessels near the concubine. In total, tomb BZM7 contained around 410 grave goods of bronze, jade, stone, bone and ceramic.

Equally remarkable as tomb BZM7  are tombs BRM1 and BRM2 at Rujiazhuang. Tomb BRM1 contained a lineage head with (presumably) his concubine, while tomb BRM2, which housed the wife of the lineage head in BRM1, was cut into the western wall of tomb BRM1.

The Tomb of Yu Bo, Er and Xingji. Tomb M2, situated on the right, belonged to the consort Xingji, while tomb M1 belonged to Yu Bo and the concubine, Er. Zhongguo Shehui kexue Kaogu Yanjiusuo 中国社会科学考古研究所 2004: 122, fig. 3-28.

Tombs BRM1 and BRM2 were not constructed contemporaneously. Given that tomb BRM2 cut into the wall of tomb BRM1, it is clear that the latter grave was earlier than the former one. The positioning of tomb BRM2 raises a number of questions about memory and remembrance and the construction and reiteration of familial relationships at burial.

The principal tomb occupant in BRM1 was placed in one outer coffin and two inner coffins. The outer coffin was 3.2 meters long x 2.4 meters wide x 2.26 meters deep, and his concubine’s outer coffin measured 3.2 meters long x 1.8 meters wide x 1.9 meters deep. The principal tomb occupant’s first inner coffin measured 2.6 meters long x 1.55 meters wide, and the second inner coffin measured 2.10 meters long x 0.95 meters wide. The concubine’s inner coffin measured 2.1 meters long x 0.9 meters in width. The gap between the coffins was about 0.20 meters.

The principal tomb occupant had eight accompanying attendants-in-death, including the concubine in the adjacent coffin. On the right side of the er ceng tai were eight ceramic guan vessels and four chariot wheels.

Bronze ritual vessels were placed between the concubine’s inner and outer coffin, including five bronze ding, four bronze gui, one bronze object and two ceramic cups. On the inner coffin were jade fish, mother of pearl fish, jade rabbit, three bronze fish and jade bingxingshi. Inside the inner coffin were jade animals, jade daggers, beads (around 800), jade disks, stone objects and bronze hairpins.

On the lid of the principal tomb owner’s outer coffin were horse and chariot objects. Between the outer and inner coffin in the top left corner were the principal tombs owner’s bronze ritual vessels, including nine ding, five gui, one yan, two li, one you, three animal zun, two round zun, one lei, two jue, one zhi, one dou, one pan, two hu, three large bells, and two bronze horse objects.

Tomb BRM1 contained a very unusual set of bronze ritual vessels.

Matching sets of ding and gui vessels from the tomb of Er at Rujiazhuang. Lu Liancheng and Hu Zhisheng 1988, vol. 2, pl. 154: 1 and 153.1

By contrast, the lineage head in tomb BRM1 was interred with vessels of different shapes, sizes, weights and ornamentation. The following selection of bronze vessels come from tomb BRM1:

Tomb BRM1 also had three accompanying horse and chariot pits. And, while larger accompanying chariot pits with more chariot and horses interred therein have been found at other Zhou sites, the pits from Baoji are nonetheless still impressive and remind us of the extravagance of the funeral.

Chariot pit BRCH3. Lu Liancheng and Hu Zhisheng 1988, vol. 2, pl. CCXI: 1 and vol. 2 391, fig. 2.66

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