Possible ritual elements embodied in prehistoric remains

By LI MORAN / 12-14-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

The stone carvings unearthed at Shimao site Photo: Courtesy of LI MORAN

Generally, a ritual is a set of symbolic and performative behaviors prescribed by cultural traditions. In archaeology, these behaviors are usually evidenced by the design and construction of geographical landscapes, relics (settings), and other elements.

Early cosmic belief and ancestor worship 

The Niuheliang site in western Liaoning Province is the largest burial and sacrificial center of the late Hongshan Culture (c. 4000–3000 BCE) discovered to date. Scattered across the mountain ridges encircling the valley in front of Nulu’erhu Mountain, this expansive site encompasses 16 core ruins spread over a 50 square kilometer area. All facing the Daling River and Mulan Hill, the core ruins, particularly Spot No. 1 housing the goddess temple and Spot No. 13 with its “pyramid-shaped building,” offer breathtaking vistas.

The most recent archaeological excavations have revealed the intricate nature of Building No. 2 at Spot No. 1, a complex structure built on a platform crafted from earth and masonry side walls, spanning an impressive 100,000 square meters. Evidently, the Niuheliang people undertook this remarkable feat of reshaping the geographical landscape where the site is located. Taking the north-south ridge as the main axis, they transformed the gently undulating mountain terrain into a layered sacred space. 

Palynological analysis suggests that the climate in the upper reaches of the Daling River, where the site is located, was warmer and damper in the past. Samples collected at the second and fifth sites in Niuheliang revealed significant presence of pollen from herbaceous and shrub plants, with a large proportion of grassland vegetation dominated by artemisia. Environmental archaeologists posit that this phenomenon may be linked to human activities, suggesting that the Hongshan people may have intentionally cut down tall trees and cleared the land to better display their ritual architecture.

The site’s most prominent religious feature is the ruins of the goddess temple in the south. Positioned at the southernmost end of Spot No.1, the majority of the excavated artifacts consist of clay sculptures depicting tall figures, some even three times the size of a real person. Researchers believe that these sculptures may have represented the ancestral deities of the Niuheliang inhabitants and were held in high esteem during that era. 

At the second site in Niuheliang, situated on a broad, level terrain, six circular or square stone piles were arranged in an east-west orientation. Some believe that this layout symbolizes the early cosmology of the Hongshan ancestors, portraying the heavens as a dome enveloping the square earth. Numerous tombs were discovered beneath these stone piles, with the burial objects predominantly consisting of animal-shaped jades. It is plausible that in ancient belief, these jades mainly represented the ability of the tomb owners to maintain cosmic order, possibly belonging to a select group with specialized knowledge of the universe.

Intimate rituals of Liangzhu nobles

The Liangzhu Culture, which thrived from 5,300 to 4,300 years ago, is generally considered as the earliest society with a state structure in China and even East Asia. The city site is delineated into inner and outer cities, with the focal point of the inner city being the Mojiao Palace Zone, covering an expansive area of 300,000 square meters. This artificial rectangular platform forms a cluster of centrally symmetrical structures, in conjunction with the Huangfen Hill and Lucheng Gate ruins to the south.

Similar to the Hongshan people, the Liangzhu community also emphasized the importance of certain places by transforming the geographical landscape. They opted to construct pyramid-like platforms using pure loess. However, as of now, no remnants or artifacts closely related to religious rituals have been found on the earthen platform. Many house ruins were discovered near Da Mojiao Hill [a small artificial platform about 5-6 meters high located within the Mojiao Palace Zone], and a plethora of finished and semi-finished handicraft items were unearthed from the Zhangjiagang channel outside the palace zone on the east side, indicating significant human activity throughout history. Therefore, Da Mojiao Hill is more likely to have served as a residence for rulers, where they lived and handled civil affairs, and perhaps held a small number of secular ritual activities. 

In contrast, the Fanshan site, an artificial rectangular mound located in the northwest corner of the inner city, is more closely related to religious rituals. Archaeologists have discovered a total of 11 high-ranking tombs on its southwest side. Most of the tombs were rich in jade artifacts, including cong [hollowed-out cylinders that are round on the inside and square on the outside], bi [a flat disc], huang [an arc-shaped artifact used as a pendant worn from the belt], yue [axe-shaped object] and cone-shaped utensils. In later archives, jade items such as cong, bi, and huang were commonly used as ritual vessels for sacrificial ceremonies. Many jade items were embellished with finely engraved, highly stylized “man-animal mask motifs,” also known as “divine emblems” by the excavators. Many researchers have directed their attention towards the religious aspects of Liangzhu culture, regarding it as a regional theocratic state.

This practice of constructing tombs on earthen platforms is a longstanding historical tradition in the Lake Tai area. The main routes and paths entering the inner city indicate that Fanshan was remotely situated and reflected a sense of privacy, implying that the funerary rights conducted there were not open to the general public. These observations underscore that the most representative ritual behavior of Liangzhu society, as evidenced in archaeological research—the funeral ceremonies of high-ranking nobles—were highly private events at that time.

Shamanistic characteristics of Shimao 

The Shimao site is located in the northern part of the Loess Plateau and the southern edge of the Mu Us Desert, between the Eurasian steppe and the Yellow River Basin in China. The site is divided into inner and outer cities by stone walls, with a total area of more than 4 million square meters. Current archaeological excavations are mainly conducted on the sites of the eastern gate of the outer city, the Royal City Terrace of the inner city, and various other residential ruins. 

The eastern gate site, located at the highest elevation of the site, comprises an inner and outer weng-cheng [an area of defensive fuction connected to the main city wall by semi-circular curtain-walls], a duntai platform, and a “concierge.” Jade shovels and jade huang were found in the cracks in the stone wall of the outer weng-cheng. Beneath the eastern gate site are two pits, each containing 24 buried skulls, predominantly belonging to young women. It is speculated that these skulls were somehow associated with the inauguration ceremony of the city wall.

Further evidence of religious ritual behaviors was found at the Royal City Terrace in the inner city. This terrace was built against a hill, which was meticulously carved layer by layer, fashioned into a stepped, truncated cone, culminating in an expansive 80,000-square-meter summit. Encircling stone walls, towering over 70 meters in height, enclosed the terrace, upon which important relics such as the city gate, main doorway, square, side roads and the large platform (da taiji) were constructed.

The apex of the large platform was the site of frequent ritual practices. A treasure trove of relics associated with ritual behavior were discovered within the deposits formed by collapsed architecture under the eastern parapet, including over 20 kou-huang [an ancient reed instrument] crafted from bones, and more than 20 colossal ceramic eagles believed to have served the function of facilitating communication between humans and gods, as well as venerating ancestors. 

In addition, atop the northern end of the eastern parapet, an assemblage of over 100 fragments of speal bones for divination were unearthed, distributed among stratified layers. These findings suggest that the primary ritual practices of Shimao ancestors likely involved bird worship for ritual purposes, the drilling and burning of speal bones as a ritual performace, as well as the playing of kou-huang. In the neighboring regions of North Asia, shamanism has been prevalent since ancient times, and Shimao presents many features of shamanistic practices. Many relics unearthed from the Shimao site also illustrate the connections between Shimao society, North Asia, and Central Asia.

In conclusion, the Niuheliang ruins, Liangzhu ancient city, and Shimao site all appear to have enhanced the sanctity of ritual sites through intentional transformation of geographical landscapes. The Hongshan society, exemplified by Niuheliang, conducted ritual practices primarily centered on ancestor worship and an early understanding of cosmic order. These rituals were performed publicly, reflecting a pronounced communal aspect. The Shimao people inhabited the intersection of nomadic and agricultural civilizations, and were deeply influenced by the culture of North Asia. Their ritual behaviors present distinctive shamanistic characteristics. In comparison, the ritual practices within Liangzhu society were notably private, as evidenced by the construction of funerary structures and noble tombs on artificial platforms. Although the burial jades exhibited religious elements, their scale and placement indicate that they were private items, with only a select few permitted to participate in funerary rites.

Li Moran is an associate research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.