Over 12,000 artifacts excavated from Sanxingdui Ruins site
Latest achievements of civilization-tracing project revealed
Published: Dec 09, 2023 05:20 PM
A visitor takes a photo of a copied artifact during a promotion event of documentary series China Before China in Beijing on Saturday. Photo: Li Hao/GT

A visitor takes a photo of a copied artifact during a promotion event of documentary series China Before China in Beijing on Saturday. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Chinese cultural authorities unveiled its latest archaeological achievements of the national project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization in Beijing on Saturday. Among the noteworthy breakthroughs is the preliminary understanding of the distribution and internal structure of the sacrificial area at the world-renowned Sanxingdui Ruins site. 

Li Qun, vice minister of culture and tourism and head of the National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA), highlighted that the civilization-tracing project, grounded in field archaeology, utilizes interdisciplinary collaboration in sciences and humanities. Since the implementation of the project's fifth phase in 2020, the project has expanded its research scope to 29 core sites, deepening the understanding of the origin and early stages of Chinese civilization.

The project suggests that approximately 5,800 years ago, distinct social differentiation emerged across various regions of China, marking the accelerated phase of Chinese civilization. This period, from 5,800 to 3,500 years ago is identified as the ancient state era and the era of dynasties, according to the information released at the press conference.  

Li noted that compared to the fourth phase of the project, the current archaeological work has deepened our understanding of this era.

The first stage of the ancient state era, around 5,800-5,200 years ago, is exemplified by the Niuheliang site in Northeast China's Liaoning Province, the largest known sacrificial site and tomb group of Northeast China's Hongshan culture. 

The second stage, approximately 5,200-4,300 years ago, including the well-known Liangzhu site in East China's Zhejiang Province, witnessed increased social differentiation and enhanced mobilization of social resources. 

Wang Ningyuan, a research fellow at the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, told the Global Times that over the past three years, archaeological work at the Liangzhu site has focused on the water conservancy system. Nearly 20 new dams have been discovered on the periphery of Liangzhu north of Tangshan Mountain, with signs of dams found in more distant areas. C14 dating places them around 5,000 years ago, and they are part of the same system as the existing 11 dams.

The third stage, around 4,300-3,800 years ago, established a historical trend centered around the Central Plains, laying the foundation for China's historical development.

Researchers believe that 3,800 years ago, China entered the era of dynasties, with significant progress in archaeological work at the Erlitou and Sanxingdui ruins sites. The Erlitou site in Central China's Henan Province corresponds to the Xia and Shang dynasties (c.2070BC-1046BC) in historical records, revealing a structured urban layout indicating a mature and orderly social hierarchy -  a crucial sign of the transition to a dynastic state.

The globally acclaimed Sanxingdui Ruins site's archaeological work has also seen groundbreaking progress, specifically in preliminarily understanding the distribution and internal structure of the sacrificial area. 

A significant breakthrough includes the recent excavation and cleaning of six sacrificial pits and the recovery of over 12,000 artifacts (including 2,300 complete items). Research indicates that the burial ages of the eight sacrificial pits were concentrated around the late Shang and early Zhou periods, approximately 3,100 to3,000 years ago.

"Ancient people carefully chose the location of sacrificial pits, opting for elevated areas along the southern riverbank at the site," Chang Huaiying, a research fellow at the Archaeological Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Saturday, adding that the unearthed artifacts, such as divine trees and gold masks, displaying distinctive features of the ancient state of Shu, were likely locally produced, but specific details require further research and verification.

Another highlight of the exploration project is the integration of multiple disciplines across core sites, incorporating chronological samples, environmental reconstruction, remote sensing, and the collaborative study of animal and plant remains. 

For example, collaborative research involving animal archaeology, plant archaeology, environmental archaeology, stable isotope analysis, and ancient DNA analysis, reveals significant regional differences in subsistence economies over the past 7,000 years, in which the Central Plains and northern regions exhibit a mixed agricultural production system dominated by millet and supplemented by wheat, soybeans, and rice.

Li pointed out that This interdisciplinary approach has become a new norm in field archaeology, which has significantly enhanced the acquisition of information.

Looking ahead, the NCHA plans to further advance and deepen the national project, combining archaeology, literature research, and scientific methods. This holistic approach aims to answer key questions regarding the origin, formation, and development of Chinese civilization, providing a comprehensive understanding of its evolution across regions and time periods.

After the conference, the NCHA announced a documentary series China Before China is set to be aired at Shanghai's Dragon TV on Saturday night, featuring eight episodes. 

Grounded in the achievements linked to the civilization-tracing project and archaeological research, the series narrates the diverse and unified formation of the Chinese nation and the genesis of Chinese civilization, visually retracing historical origins and cultural foundations, the NCHA said.