The Neolithic City of Shimao

By REN GUANHONG / 07-21-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A ceramic eagle discovered at the Neolithic City of Shimao Photo: CFP

In 2021, the Neolithic City of Shimao in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province was listed among the Decade’s 10 Most Extraordinary Discoveries by Archaeology magazine, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America. 
According to “Top 10 Discoveries of the Decade,” “it was originally thought that the ancient stone walls visible on the edge of the Mu Us Desert in the northern province of Shaanxi had once been part of the Great Wall. But, when archaeologists examined them intensively, they realized something much older and more complex was buried there. They had discovered the lost city of Shimao, which dates back to 2300 B.C. Over the past 10 years, excavators including Zhouyong Sun of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology have uncovered a stone city with immense fortifications and sophisticated infrastructure, thousands of luxurious artifacts, and a 230-foot-high stepped pyramid that served as the residence for Shimao’s rulers and leading families. The site’s early date and peripheral location were surprising since Chinese civilization was thought to have first developed in the Central Plains around 500 years after Shimao’s founding. ‘The discovery really puzzled me and other archaeologists,’ says Sun. ‘Shimao reveals a unique trajectory to urbanism in China. This once-powerful kingdom was completely unknown in ancient textual records.’”
The Neolithic City of Shimao is located on the southeastern edge of the Mu Us Desert in Gaojiabao Town, Shenmu City, Shaanxi Province. Carbon-14 dating and archaeological studies show that the city was first built around 2300 BCE and was abandoned around 1800 BCE. Spanning 4 million square meters, Shimao is the largest known city site dated to the late Longshan Period (c. 2500–2000 BCE).
The site consists of three parts: the Huang Cheng Tai (Imperial City Platform), the inner city, and the outer city. The Imperial City Platform is a 70-meter-high stone-walled platform, shaped like a stepped pyramid. A large number of important relics, such as jade, pottery, murals, and stone carvings, have been unearthed on the site and its surrounding areas.
Many human skulls buried under the city wall suggest that ritual activities took place at the time of construction. Jade artifacts were found inside the stone walls, which is notably unique. Studies conclude that these artifacts would have been deliberately embedded in the city walls during their construction. This practice may have been related to places like Yumen and Yaotai [both are places where the immortals live in Chinese legends] mentioned in classical texts.
According to Sun, the Shimao site is the largest among many walled settlements dating to around 2000 BCE that have been discovered in China. The period around 2000 BCE is an era of social, cultural, and political transformation, witnessing the formation of the earliest cities, states, and civilizations in China. The discovery and excavation of the Shimao site will contribute to and may even transform our understanding of the development of early civilizations and the process of state formation in China.