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In 2011, excavations began in the Jiangzhai village in China, which uncovered an ancient graveyard known as the Yejiashan graveyard. More than 3700 square meters have been excavated and many artefacts have been discovered including potteries, ceramics, jades, tools, primitive porcelains and other artefacts. A few well preserved tombs were found dating back to the West Zhou dynasty 3,000 years ago including burial furniture and coffins. The discovery of the massive Yejiashan graveyard was classified in China as one of the Top 10 discoveries of 2011.
Today, 2 years later, a new round of excavations have begun that brought to the surface seven sacrificial tombs with horse skeletons inside that according to archaeologist Li Boqian are the first from that period of China’s history. In one of the largest discovered tombs, the oldest ever chime bells were uncovered and were probably used during the rituals of the time.
Sacrifices were a common practice in ancient civilizations and the purpose was to satisfy divine beings and achieve a goal or a higher purpose. It is interesting to notice all religions in many different parts of the world followed such a practice, even if the communication between some of them was impossible. This leads to the question as to how they acquired this practice in the first place and what made them believe that their actions would satisfy their ‘gods’? Well the some suggestion has already been mentioned in the ancient texts - ‘Gods’ taught people sacrifice and demanded it from them. Sacrifice is something common even in Christianity, including the story of Isaac where ‘God’ tested the faith of his follower Abraham. Is all of that in the imagination of multiple disconnected civilizations all over the world or is it somehow related to a truth?
Evidence of sacrifice found in 3,000 year old Chinese Tombs - History
Chinese archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of artifacts at an archeological site in the southwestern Sichuan province, providing glimpses of an ancient civilization dating back more than 3,000 years.
Over 500 relics found in Sanxingdui, including gold and bronze mask fragments as well as ivory and jade items, were unveiled over the weekend, according to the National Cultural Heritage Administration. This is the largest finding at the ancient site in more than 30 years, since the first major excavation began in 1986.
Zhao Congcang, a professor of archeology at Northwest University in Shaanxi province, told Sixth Tone that although the site was discovered almost a century ago, it wasn’t until a major excavation in 1986 that the historical findings drew wide public attention. At that time, more than 1,000 relics were unearthed from two pits — including a standing bronze figure, a bronze mask, and a 3.95-meter-tall bronze “tree of life” now on display at the Sanxingdui Museum.
“It will be of great academic significance for research to determine the age of the Sanxingdui Civilization, its cultural context and characteristics, and its origin and flow,” he said, referring to the recent discoveries.
In 1987, Chinese academics had proposed the name “Sanxingdui Civilization” to describe the discoveries, surmising that the ruins date from the late Xia dynasty to the Shang and Zhou dynasties.
In light of the recent discoveries, Sixth Tone takes a closer look at the Sanxingdui Ruins.
A fragment of a gold mask recently found at the Sanxingdui Ruins, Guanghan, Sichuan province, March 17, 2021. Xinhua
What are the Sanxingdui Ruins, and why are they important?
Located in the city of Guanghan, some 40 kilometers north of Chengdu, the Sanxingdui Ruins are home to several artifacts from the Shu Kingdom, an ancient state in what is now Sichuan province. It is known to be the largest centralized site ever found in the region, dating back to the Xia (2070 B.C.-1600 B.C.) and Shang (1600 B.C.-1046 B.C.) dynasties.
The archaeologists say they have also discovered evidence of a walled city at the site that they believe was founded contemporaneously during the Shang dynasty.
“(The discoveries) can provide valuable empirical evidence for an in-depth study of the exchange between ancient Chinese and extraterritorial cultures, as well as their role and position in the global history of human cultural development,” Zhao said, adding that the Sanxingdui Civilization has a “significant connection” with the origin of Chinese civilization.
The discovery of Sanxingdui dates from 1929, when a farmer unearthed a cache of jade relics in Guanghan. The world didn’t realize the scale of the Sanxingdui Ruins until 1986, when archeologists discovered thousands of gold, jade, bronze, and pottery artifacts in the first sacrificial pit. However, due to limited excavation technology in the late ’80s, many of the artifacts weren’t properly preserved.
Since the opening of the Sanxingdui Museum in 1997, the site has attracted millions of visitors. Bronze heads with gold foil masks and the bronze tree of life are among the museum’s prized items. Last year, several domestic museums including Sanxingdui Museum offered livestreamed tours after people were advised to avoid unnecessary travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In July, archeologists also discovered what is believed to be a 5,000-year-old settlement near Sanxingdui. One of the findings, a pottery pig, became a talking point on social media due to its uncanny resemblance to a character from the hit mobile game Angry Birds.
Lei Yu, head of the Sanxingdui archaeological work station, gives a speech in Guanghan, Sichuan province, March 20, 2021. People Visual
What are the recent discoveries?
The artifacts unveiled Saturday are from excavation work that started in November 2019. Local archeologists have discovered six new sacrificial pits at the site in addition to the two found in 1986.
Findings included fragments of a gold mask — about 23 centimeters wide and 28 centimeters tall — which have become the pièce de résistance of the current excavation. According to the leader of the excavation team, the whole mask is expected to weigh over 500 grams and could be “the heaviest golden object from that time period.”
Zhao, the professor, described the mask as a “rare, dazzling treasure.” He added that another discovery, a carving on a mung bean-sized piece of ivory, could perhaps be one of the earliest instances of Chinese “micro-carving art.”
More than 100 ivory items were unearthed in the recent excavation. A large number of ivory pieces had also been discovered in the previous excavation, though many couldn’t be well preserved, according to domestic media.
Another finding was the site’s never-before-seen silk. Such discoveries are believed to help researchers understand Sichuan’s importance as a key source of goods along the Silk Road after the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.), state-run Global Times reported, citing an unnamed expert.
Sun Hua, a professor at Peking University’s School of Archaeology and Museology, told domestic media that the eight pits were filled in around same time, and the discovered relics could be sacrificial artifacts from the same temple.
“If this conjecture is true, then this archaeological discovery could provide new support for restoring the entire temple’s ritual space, religious system, social structure, philosophy, and cosmology from that time,” he said.
A bronze sculpture on display at the Sanxingdui Museum in Guanghan, Sichuan province, Sept. 6, 2020. People Visual
What’s new in this excavation?
According to Ran Honglin, who is in charge of the current excavation project, the work has been a joint collaboration between experts from Peking University, Shanghai University, and Sichuan University, and the archaeologists have adopted modern technology to complete the project.
This time, the team used “archeological cabins” erected over the pits to control the excavation site’s temperature and humidity levels. They have also helped minimize the amount microorganisms and bacteria that workers introduce to the site, which can damage the artifacts.
This excavation is also one of the few that has been livestreamed to the public, with millions watching it from their electronic devices in real time.
How has the public received the recent discoveries?
The significant national and international media coverage is likely to aid Sanxingdui’s local tourism in the future. Du Yu, a guide at the Chengdu Museum, said he noticed an influx of tourists visiting the museum’s Sanxingdui bronze statue over the weekend.
“Many museums around Chengdu are going to benefit from all the public attention from the new Sanxingdui discovery,” Du told Sixth Tone. “This demonstrates public interest in the culture and civilization of the ancient Shu Kingdom.”
Since Saturday’s announcement, more than 5,000 people have visited the Sanxingdui Museum daily, twice the average weekend footfall. Many online have also said they would be willing to visit the museum and see the newly unearthed artifacts.
Meanwhile, the excavation has taken a twist on Chinese social media, with many users slamming state broadcaster China Central Television for inviting author Nanpai Sanshu, who writes about tomb raiders, to give his take on the recent discoveries. Experts and social media users have strongly suggested that linking archeology to tomb raiding — a serious crime in China — is unnecessary and misleading.
(Header image: Archaeologists unearth more than 500 cultural relics dating back some 3,000 years at the Sanxingdui Ruins in Guanghan, Sichuan province, March 20, 2021. People Visual)
Remains of horses from 2,700 years ago found in Chinese family tomb
In central China, a tomb complex containing the remains of horses thought to belong to an ancient royal household was discovered.
Excavation of the surrounding land yielded 21 large tombs, six horse pits, and 500 copper, ceramic, and jade relics. A 2,700-year-old tomb complex containing the remains of horses believed to belong to a member of an ancient royal household has been unearthed in central China
The tomb, which could date back 2,700 years, is thought to belong to a royal family from the Spring and Autumn Period.
Chinese archaeologist made the discovery in the city of Sanmenxia, in central China’s Henan Province on Saturday, according to Xinhua News.
Skeletons of 28 horses were found in the six pits. The horses were lying on their sides and were accompanied by dogs.
Out of the 21 large tombs, 20 of them contained coffins, according to archaeologists.According to preliminary analysis, the Shangshihe village tomb complex is thought to be the burial site of nobles from the middle Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC)
According to preliminary analysis, the Shangshihe village tomb complex is thought to be the burial site of nobles from the early to the middle Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC).
The tomb was arranged in an orderly manner and all the relics were very well preserved, the experts said. This shows that the household had a clear layout planned and a strict burial system in place.
Other bronzeware, ceramics and anicent food vessels were also unearthed from the complex, indicating the owner’s noble status, according to Yang Haiqing, a researcher at the Sanmenxia Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.
Four dings (鼎), which were prehistoric and ancient Chinese cauldrons that stand upon legs with a lid and two facing handles were discovered along with four guis (簋), a type of bowl-shaped ritual bronze vessel used to hold offerings of food, usually grain, for ancestral tombs.
Experts said these reveal details about the technology and production methods used by noble households at the time, as well as the social status of the family and funeral customs of the period.
The site was discovered in July last year, when a local chemical enterprise was expanding construction.Experts said the relics reveal details about the technology and production methods used by noble families at the time
This is not the first time that such burials have been uncovered in China.
Last November, archaeologists discovered a 2,400-year-old tomb in Xinzheng city in the same province, thought to hold the remains of noble families of the Zheng State, who ruled the region intermittently between 770 and 221 BC.
Excavation of the surrounding land had uncovered 18 large pits containing horses and chariots and more than 3,000 tombs.Around 500 pieces of burial objects such as bronzeware, pottery and jade were excavated from the tomb complex
In 2011, archaeologists uncovered the almost 3,000-year-old remains of horses and wooden chariots in a Zhou Dynasty tomb in Luoyang city, also in Henan province.
The pits also contained well-preserved evidence of bronzeware and ceramics from the Early Western Zhou dynasty.
Leather Balls and 3,000-Year-Old Pants Hint at an Ancient Asian Sport
A little over 3,000 years ago, a roughly 40-year-old man was laid to rest in a cemetery in what is now the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. He was wearing fancy pants. Possibly the oldest trousers in the world, they had an enlarged crotch area, indicating he spent a lot of time on horseback. A pair of red leather boots completed the ancient ensemble.
But perhaps the most curious component of the grave was a leather ball, around the size of a human fist. When it was excavated in the 1970s, no one knew how old the tomb was. Now, the leather balls have finally been dated to approximately the same period as the pants. The results were published in the open-access Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
“We can now confirm that these three leather balls from Yanghai are the oldest leather balls in Eurasia,” says Patrick Wertmann, an archaeologist at the University of Zurich and lead author of the recent study. “They were life tools, used for play or useful training.”
The Yanghai Tombs are in the arid Turpan basin, and thousands of graves remain unexcavated. Courtesy Patrick Wertmann
The grave in question is just one of 3,000 found at Yanghai, in the Turpan Basin. Since 2003, just over 500 of the graves have been excavated, and three of them—including the tomb of the well-to-do horseman—yielded the balls, two of which were marked with a red cross.
In the first millennium BC, Yanghai was home to a sophisticated community of horseback riders. Wertmann says they were some of the earliest horse domesticators in the area, and that the presence of the balls—and the depiction of horseback ball games elsewhere in China—suggests that the balls may have been used for sport. The Yanghai Tombs, as they are known, span nearly 1,400 years, and most have been well-preserved. The most recent date to the Han Dynasty, or roughly the 2nd century. The site offers archaeologists a glimpse of what mattered to these ancient riders, from their riding trousers to their red-leather boots.
“The whole Turpan Basin is like a treasure trove because of the climate conditions,” Wertmann says. “It’s extremely hot and extremely dry. For us as archaeologists it’s really good, because all these organic materials are naturally preserved, including textiles, leather, wood, and also the human animal and plant remains that are not usually preserved in archaeological contexts.”
One of the balls had burst open, revealing its dense woolen insides. Wertmann et al. 2020
The balls—which are stuffed with wool and hair, wrapped in treated rawhide, and crimped closed on top—look a lot like large soup dumplings. They’re half a millennium older than other excavated balls from Eurasia, according to Wertmann. At least one of the balls had strike marks and had apparently burst open, perhaps after it was struck in a game. The red crosses—which also show up in later Chinese art depicting stick-and-ball games—may have been painted to help the tan balls stand out from the brown landscape.
The balls were no joke. “They’re actually really hard,” Wertmann says. “You could compare these leather balls from Yanghai with modern baseballs.”
More recent art from elsewhere in China shows polo-like games being played on horseback with sticks. Curved wooden sticks were also found in some graves in Yanghai, though they are younger than the leather balls, so the two were not necessarily used in tandem.
A Tang dynasty wall painting depicts horsemen playing a polo-style game. A similar sport may have been played at Yanghai. Wertmann et al. 2020
“I appreciate how cautious the authors are in their interpretations of these balls, essentially saying we cannot determine based on current evidence that these balls can be linked with polo,” says Jeffrey Blomster, an archaeologist at George Washington University who has worked on numerous ball-game sites in Mesoamerica, and who is unaffiliated with the recent paper. “While we cannot say for sure what kind of game, or even activity, was performed using these balls, the fact that all three are nearly the same size suggests a similar use for all three.”
With thousands of graves left to excavate at Yanghai, archaeologists may learn more about the exact purpose of these balls. The elements of sport are there, and for the researchers who study them, the game’s afoot.
Unearthing China’s Other Civilization
Ever since archeologists unearthed a series of strange and spectacular artifacts from the Sanxingdui Ruins in China’s Sichuan province in 1986, there have been suspicions that this site may be otherworldly.
A number of bizarre bronze masks too big for humans, bronze heads decorated with gold foil, and other curiosities (including figurines with a suspicious resemblance to the modern Angry Birds game) have promoted fantasies that Sanxingdui was the remains of an alien civilization—or more reasonable suppositions that it is a previously unknown Bronze Age culture dating back 3,000 years ago. A new round of excavations, whose findings were presented to the public in March, may give further clues as to how this civilization rose and fell.
Revealed to the public on March 20, this partial mask, 23-centimeters wide and 28-centimeters tall, is made of 85 percent pure gold. It is one of the most prominent relics from the latest Sanxingdui excavation that began in 2020. (VCG/Hongxin News/Wang Mingping)
A bronze wheel discovered at Sanxingdui, with a radius of 85 centimeters, looks like a modern steering wheel, but scholars believe it to be a representation of the sun. (VCG)
The standing bronze figure with long robe and crown was excavated from Sanxingdui in 1986. At 1.8 meters tall, with a base over 2.6 meters high, it is the tallest human statue yet to be unearthed in China. The object he is holding is still debated: a piece of ivory, a staff, a jade ritual object, or perhaps this was a particular gesture used in a ceremony. No bronze representations of humans, whether masks or statues, have ever been unearthed in China before. (VCG)
Sanxingdui may be the most significant archeological discovery in modern China, as it complicates the idea that the Yellow River civilization was the only advanced Bronze Age culture in China. With apparently no written script, this mysterious culture has captured the nation’s imagination for decades, and ignited long-lasting academic debates about its society and history.
First discovered in 1929 by a local farmer of the surname Yan, who accidentally found several jade objects when digging a pond near his home, Sanxingdui was first excavated by Dr. David Crockett Graham, an American missionary, anthropologist, and archeologist. But it wasn’t until two full pits of relics were found in 1986 by experts from the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archeology Research Institute that Sanxingdui became an important site.
Archeologists have made routine excavations at the site ever since, but the latest large-scale dig began after new relics turned up in late 2019. Since then, six new pits have been discovered, with over 500 intriguing relics excavated: a partial golden mask, gold decorations, bronze ware, and even traces of silk.
But mysteries over the Sanxingdui Culture remain: Who were the people living at this site, and what was their society like? How did this civilization disappear? Since no written script has been discovered, archeologists and historians are piecing together the clues—literally, as all the relics found to date have been smashed into pieces, burned, covered with a layer of ivory, and buried.
Experts believe most of these relics are ritual objects that suggest a religion centering around worship of the sun. No human remains have been discovered in the pits, prompting researchers to believe the site to be a place of worship—perhaps a large temple—instead of a tomb. As to why the relics were destroyed, some argue it was a part of a worship ritual, whiles others propose it could have been the act conquerors after they invaded a city.
China’s dominant and better-known Bronze Culture is the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE), which existed at around the same time of Sanxingdui and was based in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. No human statues have ever been found from the Shang civilization, whose typical bronze wares were ding (鼎) and zun (尊), large vessels that held food and drink during sacrificial rituals. These ceremonies were recorded in scripts carved on the vessels and on animal bones. The Shang worshiped their ancestral gods, while their chief conducted human sacrifices for ritual ceremonies.
But neither the Shang’s type of bronze ware, nor their religious practice, seem to have any connection with the Sanxingdui culture. In fact, there seems to be clear distinction between the two societies: Valuables like gold, jade, and large bronze vessels were found in many Shang tombs as an indication of social status and private property. However, valuables in Sanxingdui seemed to be for the purpose of worship and not owned by any individual.
Archeologists have also identified the ruins of an ancient city covering an area of 3.5 kilometers on the Sanxingdui site. There appears to be a division of districts, as well as a large building complex, and water conservation facilities. The site takes its name, Sanxingdui (“Three-Star Mound”), from a Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911) name for the entire locality, which referred to three hillocks that used to align here like a constellation. Researchers believe these mounds could be the remains of an ancient city wall.
If proven to be unrelated to the Shang, Sanxingdui would represent a distinctive branch of ancient Chinese culture. So far, however, most theories about this mysterious culture have relied on ancient records and even myth.
There certainly was no lack of legends in mainstream historical writings that seem to fit the Sanxingdui Site: in particular, about an ancient Shu Kingdom in Sichuan. For instance, Li Bai (李白), the great Tang dynasty (618 – 907) poet, described the kingdom in his poem “The Arduous Road to Shu (《蜀道难》)”: “From Can Cong (蚕丛) to Yu Fu (鱼凫), the founding of the state is obscure. For 48,000 years, they never communicated with the outside world.”
This bronze mask with protruding eyes, over a meter wide, is thought to be an object of worship representing the Shu people’s ancestral king, Can Cong. (VCG)
Can Cong, Bo Huo (柏濩), and Yu Fu were three ancient kings of Shu, who each ruled for a hundred years, according to Chronicles of Huayang (《华阳国志》), a fourth-century gazetteer on southwest China. Afterward, they and their people became immortals and ascended into heaven. Can Cong was also credited for teaching the ancient Shu people to make silk. In the Chronicles, Can Cong’s eyes were described as muzong (目纵), which can either mean “vertical eyes” or “protruding eyes.” This is cited by some researchers to suggest that the large bronze mask with protruding eyes from Sanxingdui were ritual objects that symbolized Can Cong.
The 1986 excavation also unearthed eight bronze trees, the best-preserved of which stands at almost four meters tall. The tree is divided into three layers and nine branches, with a bird figure standing on each branch. This recalls the description of a “magic tree” recorded in the Classic of Mountains and Seas (《山海经》), a book of legends dating back to before the 3rd century BCE. According to the legend, there used to be ten suns in the world, and their spirits were embodied by golden ravens who rested on a magic tree called fusang (扶桑) in the Eastern Sea. One raven would stand on top of the tree while the other nine ravens stood on the branches below, and they would switch their positions while the suns took turns to move across the sky.
Excavated in 1986 and taking nearly a decade to repair, the intricate Number One Bronze Tree stands at 396-centimeters tall in a glass case in Sanxingdui Museum in Guanghan, Sichuan province. Archeologists believe there could be a bird figurine missing from the top of the tree. (VCG)
The disappearance of Sanxingdui civilization is even more intriguing. Previously, it was believed that the culture was wiped out by invaders or driven away by floods. However, more evidence has since revealed that it might be internal forces that caused the decline of this ancient people.
The most popular theory about the rise and fall of Sanxingdui was proposed by archeologist Sun Hua, Dean of Peking University Archaeology and Museology College, in 2003. The bronze figures found at the site have two different hairstyles, pinned up and braided. Taking other relevant findings into account, Sun deduced that the former was worn by priests, and those with divine connections while the latter marked secular noblemen. The two likely ruled together until the priest class gained more influence and wealth, and conflicts broke out. The noblemen destroyed the temples, and smashed and burned the religious objects. When the dust settled, the new rulers of Sanxingdui decided to abandon the damaged city for a new beginning.
This narrative was backed up by the discovery of the Jinsha Ruins (金沙遗址) in the western suburbs of Chengdu in 2001, south of the Sanxingdui site. Archeologists propose this is a continuation of Sanxingdui Culture, as the two ruins share many cultural symbols such as the bronze masks and statues, bird figurines, and gold decorations. A complete gold mask found in Jinsha in 2007 closely resembles the partial gold mask found in the latest Sanxingdui excavation. Tellingly, among the bronze figures in Jinsha, the pinned-up hairstyle seems to have completely vanished, leaving only figures with braided hair.
It has commonly been held that the Yellow River Plain was the birthplace of advanced Chinese civilization, but the amazing discoveries at Sanxingdui reveal that ancient China is more complex than anyone had thought before. In the future, more findings may change history as we perceive it.
Oldest evidence of marijuana use discovered in 2500-year-old cemetery in peaks of western China
Today, more than 150 million people regularly smoke cannabis, making it one of the world's most popular recreational drugs. But when and where humans began to appreciate the psychoactive properties of weed has been more a matter of speculation than science. Now, a team led by archaeologists Yang Yimin and Ren Meng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing reports clear physical evidence that mourners burned cannabis for its intoxicating fumes on a remote mountain plateau in Central Asia some 2500 years ago.
The study, published today in Science Advances, relies on new techniques that enable researchers to identify the chemical signature of the plant and even evaluate its potency. "We are in the midst of a really exciting period," says team member Nicole Boivin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) in Jena, Germany. The paper is part of a wider effort to track how the drug spread along the nascent Silk Road, on its way to becoming the global intoxicant it is today.
Cannabis, also known as hemp or marijuana, evolved about 28 million years ago on the eastern Tibetan Plateau, according to a pollen study published in May. A close relative of the common hop found in beer, the plant still grows wild across Central Asia. More than 4000 years ago, Chinese farmers began to grow it for oil and for fiber to make rope, clothing, and paper.
Pinpointing when people began to take advantage of hemp's psychoactive properties has proved tricky. Archaeologists had made claims of ritual cannabis burning in Central Asian sites as far back as 5000 years ago. But new analyses of those plant remains by other teams suggest that early cannabis strains had low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant's most powerful psychoactive component, and so lacked mind-altering properties. One academic who works in Central Asia said he and colleagues tried to smoke and eat wild varieties—but got no buzz.
Ancient people put cannabis leaves and hot stones in this brazier, and likely inhaled the resulting smoke.
The cannabis burned 2500 years ago at the Jirzankal cemetery, 3000 meters high in the Pamir Mountains in far western China, was different. Excavations there have uncovered skeletons and wooden plates, bowls, and Chinese harps, as well as wooden braziers that held burning material. All are typical of the Sogdians, a people of western China and Tajikistan who generally followed the Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, which later celebrated the mind-expanding properties of cannabis in sacred texts. At Jirzankal, glass beads typical of Western Asia and silk from China confirm the long-distance trade for which the Sogdians became famous, and isotopic analysis of 34 skeletons showed that nearly a third were migrants. Radiocarbon analysis put the burials at about 500 B.C.E.
The wooden braziers were concentrated in the more elite tombs. Yang's and Ren's team ground bits of brazier into powder and applied gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify chemical compounds left behind. They found unusually high levels of THC compared with typical wild cannabis, although much less than in today's highly bred plants. The cannabis was apparently burned in an enclosed space, so mourners almost certainly inhaled THC-laced fumes, the authors say, making this the earliest solid evidence of cannabis use for psychoactive purposes.
Archaeologists have spotted signs of ancient cannabis use from western China to the Caucasus.
First pants worn by horse riders 3,000 years ago
ROUGH RIDERS The oldest known trousers, including this roughly 3,000-year-old pair with woven leg decorations, belonged to nomadic horsemen in Central Asia.
M. Wagner/German Archaeological Institute
Two men whose remains were recently excavated from tombs in western China put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. But these nomadic herders did so between 3,300 and 3,000 years ago, making their trousers the oldest known examples of this innovative apparel, a new study finds.
With straight-fitting legs and a wide crotch, the ancient wool trousers resemble modern riding pants, says a team led by archaeologists Ulrike Beck and Mayke Wagner of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. The discoveries, uncovered in the Yanghai graveyard in China’s Tarim Basin, support previous work suggesting that nomadic herders in Central Asia invented pants to provide bodily protection and freedom of movement for horseback journeys and mounted warfare, the scientists report May 22 in Quaternary International.
“This new paper definitely supports the idea that trousers were invented for horse riding by mobile pastoralists, and that trousers were brought to the Tarim Basin by horse-riding peoples,” remarks linguist and China authority Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania.
Previously, Europeans and Asians wore gowns, robes, tunics, togas or — as observed on the 5,300-year-old body of Ötzi the Iceman — a three-piece combination of loincloth and individual leggings.
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A dry climate and hot summers helped preserve human corpses, clothing and other organic material in the Tarim Basin. More than 500 tombs have been excavated in a graveyard there since the early 1970s.
Earlier research on mummies from several Tarim Basin sites, led by Mair, identified a 2,600-year-old individual known as Cherchen Man who wore burgundy trousers probably made of wool. Trousers of Scythian nomads from West Asia date to roughly 2,500 years ago.
Mair suspects that horse riding began about 3,400 years ago and trouser-making came shortly thereafter in wetter regions to the north and west of the Tarim Basin. Ancient trousers from those areas are not likely to have been preserved, Mair says.
Horse riding’s origins are uncertain and could date to at least 4,000 years ago, comments archaeologist Margarita Gleba of University College London. If so, she says, “I would not be surprised if trousers appeared at least that far back.”
The two trouser-wearing men entombed at Yanghai were roughly 40 years old and had probably been warriors as well as herders, the investigators say. One man was buried with a decorated leather bridle, a wooden horse bit, a battle-ax and a leather bracer for arm protection. Among objects placed with the other body were a whip, a decorated horse tail, a bow sheath and a bow.
Beck and Wagner’s group obtained radiocarbon ages of fibers from both men’s trousers, and of three other items in one of the tombs.
Each pair of trousers was sewn together from three pieces of brown-colored wool cloth, one piece for each leg and an insert for the crotch. The tailoring involved no cutting: Pant sections were shaped on a loom in the final size. Finished pants included side slits, strings for fastening at the waist and woven designs on the legs.
Beck and Wagner’s team calls the ancient invention of trousers “a ground-breaking achievement in the history of cloth making.” That’s not too shabby for herders who probably thought the Gap was just a place to ride their horses through.
Questions or comments on this article? E-mail us at [email protected]
A version of this article appears in the June 28, 2014 issue of Science News.
A 3,000-year-old ‘Lost Golden City’ has recently been uncovered in Egypt (video)
Archaeologists have uncovered a “Lost Golden City” buried under the ancient Egyptian capital of Luxor for the past 3,000 years, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (April 8).
The city of “The Rise of Aten” was founded by Amenhotep III (ruled 1391-1353 B.C. ), the grandfather of Tutankhamun, or King Tut. People continued to use the “Golden City” during Amenhotep III’s co-regency with his son, Amenhotep IV (who later changed his name to Akhenaten), as well as during Tut’s reign and the pharaoh who replaced him, worshipped as Ay.
Despite the city’s long history — according to historical accounts, it once hosted King Amenhotep III’s three royal palaces and was Luxor’s largest administrative and industrial settlement — archaeologists have been unable to locate its remains until now.
“Many foreign missions searched for this city and never found it,” Zahi Hawass, the archaeologist who led the Golden City excavation and former minister of state for antiquities affairs, said in a translated quote.
His squad started out in the year 2020 on a quest to find King Tut’s mortuary shrine. According to Hawass, they chose this location because “both Horemheb and Ay temples were situated in this region.”
They were taken aback when they began uncovering mud bricks everywhere they dug. The team soon realized they had stumbled across a large city in remarkably good shape. “The city’s streets are flanked by houses,” Hawass said, some of which have 10-foot-high walls (3 meters). Rooms in these homes were lined with knickknacks and instruments that ancient Egyptians used often.
“The discovery of this lost city is the second most important archeological discovery after the tomb of Tutankhamun” in 1922, according to Betsy Brian, an Egyptology professor at John Hopkins University. “Not only can the discovery of the Lost City give us a rare glimpse into the lives of ancient Egyptians at a time when the empire was at its most prosperous, but it will also help us answer one of history’s greatest mysteries: why did Akhenaten and Nefertiti choose Amarna?”
The Golden City was defeated only a few years after Akhenaten took power in the early 1350s B.C., and Egypt’s capital was moved to Amarna.
As soon as they realized they had discovered the Lost City, the team started dating it. They did so by searching for ancient objects bearing Amenhotep III’s cartouche seal, which is an oval filled with hieroglyphics spelling out his royal name. Wine jars, rings, scarabs, colored pottery, and mud bricks all had the cartouche, indicating that the city was active during the reign of Amenhotep III, the ninth king of the 18th dynasty.
After seven months of searching, the researchers found several neighborhoods. The team also discovered the ruins of a bakery in the city’s south end, which included a food processing and cooking area complete with ovens and ceramic storage containers. According to the statement, the kitchen catered to a big clientele because it is so large.
In another, yet partially secured area of the dig, archaeologists uncovered an administrative and residential district with larger, neatly-arranged units. The area was surrounded by a zigzag fence, a common architectural design at the end of the 18th Dynasty, with just one entrance point leading to the residential areas and internal corridors. The single entrance, according to the declaration, acted as a security measure, giving ancient Egyptians control over who entered and exited the capital.
In another region, archaeologists discovered a manufacturing center for mud bricks, which were used to construct temples and annexes. On these tiles, the team discovered seals with King Amenhotep III’s cartouche.
The team also uncovered a plethora of casting molds for amulets and decorative artifacts, suggesting that the region had a flourishing temple and tomb decoration production line.
All over the area, archaeologists found tools related to industrial activity, such as spinning and weaving. Metal and glass-making slag were also found, but the workshop that manufactured these materials has yet to be discovered.
Many burials have been found, including two unusual cow or bull burials and a unique human burial with outstretched arms to the side and a rope wrapped across the knees. Scholars are now examining these graves in order to determine what happened to them and what they mean.
A vessel holding roughly 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of dried or boiled beef was recently discovered by the team. Year 37, dressed meat from the slaughterhouse of the stockyard of Kha made by the butcher luwy for the third Heb Sed festival, according to the inscription on this jar.
“This valuable evidence not only provides us with the names of two people who lived and worked in the capital, but also suggests that the city was involved during King Amenhotep III’s co-regency with his son Akhenaten,” the archaeologists said in a statement. The team also discovered a mud seal with the words “gm pa Aton,” which means “the kingdom of the sparkling Aten,” the name of a temple built by King Akhenaten at Karnak.
According to historical accounts, the capital was moved to Amarna one year after this pot was crafted. This was commanded by Akhenaten, who was known for commanding his people to worship only one deity, Aten, the sun god. Egyptologists are also puzzled as to whether he moved the capital and whether or not the Golden City was actually abandoned at the time. It’s also unclear if the city was repopulated when King Tut returned to Thebes and reopened it as a religious centre, according to the statement.
More digging may reveal more about the city’s tumultuous history. And there’s a lot of territory to cover still. “We will announce that the city extends all the way to the famed Deir el-Medina,” Hawass said, referring to an ancient worker’s village where the crafters and artisans who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens lived.
In addition, researchers in the north uncovered a large cemetery that has yet to be fully excavated. So far, the team has discovered a group of rock-cut tombs that can only be reached through rock-cut stairs, a feature also seen in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Nobles.
In the coming months, archaeologists plan to excavate these tombs and learn more about the people who lived there and the treasures they discovered.
Archaeologists Find 3,000-Year-Old Balls in China
Three leather balls from Turfan, China. Image credit: X.Y. Chen & P. Wertmann.
The ancient balls from Turfan are small, measuring between 7.4 and 9.2 cm (2.9-3.6 inches) in diameter.
The artifacts have a core of pieces of leather or hair and are enclosed in a leather case tied together with a band. Two of them are marked with a red cross on the outer leather cover.
Such balls could be used for ball games, although at the moment archaeologists cannot say what kind of game it was.
The Turfan balls were radiocarbon dated to the time interval between 1189 and 911 BCE.
They predate other currently known antique balls and images of ball games in Eurasia by several centuries.
Polo scene from the tomb of Li Yong, Fuping county, Shaanxi province, China. Image credit: P. Wertmann.
“This makes these balls about 500 years older than the previously known ancient balls and depictions of ball games in Eurasia,” said Dr. Patrick Wertmann, an archaeologist in the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies at the University of Zurich.
“Unfortunately, however, the associated archaeological information is not sufficient to answer the question of exactly how these balls were played.”
Two of the three balls were found in the burials of the possible horse riders.
Given that ball games from ancient times were considered an excellent form of physical exercise and military training, Dr. Wertmann and colleagues suggest that balls — and ball games — appeared in the region at the same time as horseback riding.
“The earliest illustrations from Greece show ball players and depictions from China show horse riders with sticks,” they said.
“Similar curved sticks were also found at the Yanghai site, but there was no apparent direct connection with the balls.”
Pictorial bricks from an Eastern Han dynasty tomb close to Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, China. Image credit: Li & Zheng.
“Therefore, the leather balls from Turfan are not connected to early forms of field hockey or polo, even though two of the balls were found in the graves of horsemen,” Dr. Wertmann said.
The discovery is reported in a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
It’s a golden age for Chinese archaeology — and the West is ignoring it
Early in April, news broke that a 3,000-year-old “lost golden city” had been uncovered in Luxor, Egypt. Described in some articles as the most important find since the 1922 discovery of the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamen, the city of Aten, founded sometime between 1391 and 1353 B.C. — during Egypt’s 18th dynasty — appears to have been the largest settlement of that era.
The discovery was prominently covered by such outlets as ABC, NPR, The Washington Post and the New York Times, which noted that it comes as “Egyptology is having a big moment,” including not just the Aten find but also a Netflix documentary on sarcophagi in Saqqara and the buildup toward the long-awaited opening of a new Grand Egyptian Museum sometime this year.
But the lavish coverage of the Aten dig contrasted with the quiet reception in the United States, two weeks before, for a stunning set of discoveries, dating to about 1,200 B.C., at the site of Sanxingdui in China’s Sichuan province, near Chengdu. There archaeologists unearthed more than 500 objects, including a large gold mask, ivory, bronzes and remnants of silk, with more coming. The finds include whole tusks of Asian elephants — evidence of tribute brought to the Sanxingdui leaders from across the Sichuan region — and anthropomorphic bronze sculptures distinct from other contemporary East Asian bronzes (which were primarily ritual vessels and weapons).
New, highly meticulous archaeological work is providing unprecedented detail about this important site, a crucial window into an early state in East Asia. In China, media interest was intense, with multiday, prime-time coverage, including a live broadcast of the excavations. And the attention was warranted: Discoveries at Sanxingdui have totally transformed our understanding of how multiple, regionally distinct yet interrelated early cultures intertwined to produce what came to be understood as “Chinese” civilization.
Why do we pay so much more attention in the West to Egyptian archaeology than to Chinese archaeology — even though each is important to our understanding of human history? Egypt strikes a chord partly because of a kind of romanticism that is a legacy of colonialism: Stories of Western archaeologists competing to find tombs in the 19th century riveted Western Europeans, and today’s news coverage is a product of that imperialist tradition (even though the team that discovered Aten was Egyptian). And the focus on discoveries in the Mediterranean world reflects a persistent bias situating the United States as a lineal descendant, via Europe, of Mediterranean civilizations. Links among ancient Egypt and Greece and Rome — and Egypt’s appearance in the Christian Bible — allowed ancient Egypt to be appropriated and incorporated into European heritage and therefore into the story of American identity.
So we treat high-profile finds in Egyptian archaeology as a thread of the story of us, while we see Chinese archaeology as unrelated to American civilization. But that view is mistaken. Roughly 6 percent of Americans identify as ethnically Asian that population is part of the American story and so, therefore, is the history of civilization in East Asia. And all ancient civilizations are part of human history and deserve to be studied and discussed on their own merits, not based on their geographical or supposed cultural connection to the Greece-Rome-Europe lineage that has long dominated the study of history in the West.
Chinese archaeology has a very different history from Egyptian archaeology. It has largely been done by local, Chinese archaeologists, for one thing it was not an imperialist project. It was also tied, early on, to nationalist claims of identity.