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Zhou period chariot and horse pit found in Northern Shaanxi plateau

Chongpingyuan cemetery is located in Yichuan County, near Yan’an, in Shaanxi Province.  The cemetery is spread overa long and narrow raised loess plateau between two gullies. The topography of the site slowly declines from the northwest to the southeast, over a surface area of 140,000 square metres. In May 2014, as the site had been damaged by tomb raiders, Shaanxi Province Archaeology Research Institute (on approval from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage) began an archaeological investigation and rescue excavation at the cemetery. By the beginning of November, the fieldwork was complete.

Zhou period chariot and horse pit found in Northern Shaanxi plateau
Unearthed chariot and horse in pit K1 
[Credit: Chinese Archaeology]
On the basis of both the distribution of the graves and the topography, the cemetery can be split into three areas: north, central and south. In 2014, excavation work focused on the north area. In total, archaeologists excavated 23 graves, 1 chariot & horse pit, and the remains of 5 ash pits and trenches. The variety of finds included bronzes items, jades, pottery, clay funerary objects (only partially fired), shells, agates, and stone tools.

The graves are all rectangular earthen shaft pit tombs. The burial chambers usually have a small opening and a large base, with a second level platform outside the main coffin. One grave has a natural earth second level platform and a small sub-pit (yaokeng) containing an animal buried alive. The coffins are wooden and of two types: outer and inner coffins, or just an inner coffin.

There is a fairly large difference in the quantity and type of burial objects in the tombs. In terms of scale, M17 is the largest tomb. Although the coffins had been raided, on top of the second level platform there was still a large quantity of bronze fish, bronze bells, stone pendants and other ornaments. The smaller-scale graves are mostly “minor burials” (baozang), with only small ornaments (e.g. jade ring) and clay funerary objects. Pottery, bronze daggers, bronze knives etc. were dug up from a few of the small graves. In addition, most of the tombs had skeletons of forelimbs belonging to young sheep or pigs. Each grave contained one or more skeletons (of individuals or animals).

M17 is the largest tomb excavated during this dig. Its opening is 4.1 metres long and 2.7 metres wide. The bottom of the tomb is 7 metres from the opening, and although the coffin chamber had been broken into and disturbed, the burial structure with one inner coffin and one outer coffin was still discernible. At a height of 0.9 metres on top of the coffin chamber’s wooden covering, archaeologists discovered a 日-shaped wooden frame used for hanging ornaments such as bronze fish, stone pendants etc. This frame is possibly the remains of what some scholars think to be a “pool” (chi, recorded in ancient texts on burial customs). This frame is made out of square timber coated in red lacquer. In the northeastern corner archaeologists also found traces of a vertically-arranged wooden post used as a prop. Underneath the wooden frame were scattered a large number of fish-shaped bronze ornaments, irregular lozenge-shaped stone pendants and a small number of bronze bells, bronze shards etc. Some perforations in the heads of the bronze fish also have the remains of rope used for tying and hanging them. Some of these fish also have an alternating red and black fabric pattern seeped into their surface, indicating that the wooden frame or the coffin were once covered with fabric.

Zhou period chariot and horse pit found in Northern Shaanxi plateau
Tomb M17 [Credit: Chinese Archaeology]
The most important discovery in this excavation was the K1 chariot & horse pit.  The pit is a rectangular shaft pit, 7.1m long from east to west, 3m wide from north to south and 2.7m deep, with walls that are almost straight. The pit is only 5m to the south of M17, and the evidence suggests it is M1’s ancillary grave. In the pit were two chariots and the bones of each chariot’s two horses. The two chariots were end to end, with the horses’ heads facing east. The shafts of the chariots were also facing east, with the chariots themselves to the west.

The eastern chariot is Chariot Number One. It is of high quality with picturesque decoration.  The chariot and the two horses have survived in relatively good condition. The chariot body is covered in reddish brown lacquer, with components such as the wooden block under the chariot and the side planks decorated with a red lacquered deformed dragon design.

Furthermore, the yoke on the shaft crossbar is decorated with bronze tinkling bells. Both ends of the axel are decorated with bronze caps. On the front of the chariot and on either side of the body are almost square-shaped jade pieces.

Apart from an abundance of decoration on the faces of the horses, along with many leather or linen horse abdomen fittings decorated with bronze, there were also two bronze helmets on their heads. On the basis of preliminary observation, the helmets are made up of a head plate, side plates and a nose plate joined together. Each bronze plate is first lined with a layer of coarse cloth as the base, and inside this layer think bamboo strips are woven to make a lozenge pattern cage. These all helped protect the horse’s face.

Chariot Number Two is behind Chariot Number 1. The chariot and horses do not have decoration and are of lower quality. The two horses belonging to this chariot had previously been stolen – a serious loss.

In addition, to the north and east sides of M17 and K1, archaeologists also found the vestiges of what is possibly a zhaogou surrounding ditch. The ditch has a fairly thick accumulation, and the finds at this location were rich, including a large quantity of pottery shards and animal skeletons.

In this cemetery archaeologists discovered all kinds of different traces of everyday life, for example ash pits and cooking stove pits. They collected many objects (e.g. pottery shards and stone implements) with the same age characteristics as the grave goods. This shows that in this cemetery area, there existed contemporaneous dwellings. That the cemetery and living area wereeither in the same place or neighbouring each other is perhaps the result of inhabitants adapting to the narrow plateau over a long period of time.

The li tripod, jar, dou container and pen basin earthenware combination in the graves is the most common combination found in late Western Zhou-early Spring and Autumnburials. Preliminary thinking is that Chongpingyuan cemetery can be dated to the Eastern and WesternZhou dynasties and to no later than the early Spring and Autumn period.

This chariot & horse pit is the first to be discovered in the Northern Shaanxi Loess Plateau area. It is new archaeological evidence for research into the spacial and chronological distribution of chariots in the period of the Zhou dynasties. Chariot Number One is complete with plentiful decoration, and it has survived in relatively good condition. The two bronze horse helmets are important material evidence for research into protective armour for horses in ancient China. Evidence from the pit also shows that its occupant had a high status and that this cemetery was important.

Source: Chinese Archaeology [July 11, 2015]
TANN

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