Decoding gold wares unearthed from Shuyuan Street Cemetery

By YUAN GUANGKUO / 03-14-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: The gold mask unearthed from the M2 tomb of the Shuyuan Street Cemetery 

The Zhengzhou Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology recently undertook a new round of excavations at the Zhengzhou Shang City Ruins, an early capital of the Shang Dynasty (c.1600–1046 BCE). Archaeologists unearthed a well-planned cemetery from the early Shang period, known as the Shuyuan Street Cemetery, housing numerous tombs of high-ranking individuals. Among the artifacts unearthed from the cemetery were several gold artifacts, including a remarkable gold mask. This discovery marks the first instance of gold wares from the early and middle Shang Dynasty that have been discovered in China.

Cemetery details

The excavated area of the Shuyuan Street Cemetery spans approximately 10,000 square meters, and is encircled by moats, within which a variety of tombs and sacrificial pits are distributed.

In addition to the size and layout of the cemetery, the combination and abundance of burial goods unearthed reveal its extraordinary nature. Among the treasures discovered are bronzeware, jade objects, and gold wares, with Tomb No. 2 (M2) yielding the most abundant discoveries. More than 200 burial objects were unearthed from M2, including 20 bronze ritual vessels and weapons, 11 jade objects, 5 gold items, as well as cowrie shell coins and plaques inlaid with turquoise. These findings suggest that the tomb’s occupant was likely a high-ranking noble from the early Shang Dynasty.   

Within the depths of the M2 tomb, archaeologists made a startling revelation: six pits for sacrificing dogs, a practice extremely rare in early Shang culture. This finding provides direct evidence for the origins of the dog sacrifice tradition observed in tombs of the late Shang Dynasty. The gold objects discovered in M2 are of paramount significance, as they included “gold bubbles” [gold flakes used to wrap bronze or wood padding, functioning as a type of ornament], gold foils, a gold mask, and plaques coated with gold foil and inlaid with turquoise. The quantity and variety of gold artifacts discovered in the Shuyuan Street Cemetery are unprecedented. The gold mask, in particular, is the first discovery from the early Shang period, measuring 18.3 cm long, 14.5 cm wide, and weighing approximately 40 grams. With its edges slightly curved inward, it was found beside the head of the tomb’s occupant, and was large enough to cover the face of an adult.

The Shuyuan Street Cemetery dates back to the early Shang period, specifically to the Baijiazhuang phase. During this period, the distribution range of cultural relics within the city site noticeably shrank, and the number of relics and artifacts significantly decreased. These observations imply a decline in the flourishing status of Zhengzhou Shang City, with indications that its function as a capital was nearly diminished during the Baijiazhuang phase. Meanwhile, the Xiaoshuangqiao site, situated approximately 12 kilometers north of the Zhengzhou Shang City ruins, abruptly rose to prominence, complete with palace buildings and sacrificial pits. It is generally believed that during the Baijiazhuang phase, the Shang had moved its capital to the Xiaoshuangqiao site, making it the political center of the time.

Although no longer serving as the Shang capital, the Zhengzhou Shang City was not completely abandoned. Evidence suggests that during the Baijiazhuang phase, a discernable population remained living within the city. Current archaeological findings indicate that the later Shang rulers still practiced sacrificial activities in Zhengzhou Shang City, as evidenced by the large number of giant bronze vessels unearthed at the city ruins. It is speculated that the Shang rulers and nobles orchestrated grand sacrificial ceremonies there, during which bronze ritual vessels used in the ceremonies were buried. Therefore, the scale of the cemetery and the numerous high-ranking burial objects indicate that the Shuyuan Street Cemetery was likely the resting place of middle to high-ranking nobles who remained in Zhengzhou Shang City.

Function of gold artifacts

The significance of gold artifacts appears to have been overshadowed by that of jade in traditional Chinese culture. However, the gold items unearthed from the Shuyuan Street Cemetery offer new insights into the cultural significance of gold in ancient China.

Currently, the gold artifacts discovered from the Shang Dynasty are found in ample quantity and are widely dispersed, primarily concentrated in two key regions within the Central Plains: Zhengzhou and Anyang. Discoveries in Zhengzhou include gold foils unearthed from tombs in the sacrificial area in the northeast corner of Zhengzhou Shang City ruins and the Xiaoshuangqiao sacrificial pits, as well as the aforementioned gold objects from the Shuyuan Street Cemetery. In Anyang, represented by the Yinxu site, approximately 24 tombs have been identified containing gold artifacts, predominantly comprising gold foils and bubbles. 

The gold artifacts from the Shang Dynasty in the Central Plains can be broadly categorized into two types. The first type comprises gold masks, such as the one discovered in Tomb M2 at Shuyuan Street, which would have been placed over the face of the tomb occupant. Archaeological findings indicate that the use of masks was a longstanding burial custom in ancient China, with evidence of red pottery bowls covering the faces of the deceased dating back to the Neolithic Majiabang and Dawenkou cultures. Various materials were used for masks in ancient China, including pottery, gold, jade, stone, bronze, leather, etc. Chinese archaeologist Song Zhaolin once remarked that humans often harbor a sense of fear towards the dead. In addition to keeping a respectful distance, covering the deceased’s face was also done to alleviate the sense of fear experienced by the living.

The other category of artifacts is decorative in nature. To date, the gold artifacts found in the Central Plains from the Shang Dynasty were originally attached to materials such as bronze, lacquered wood, and jade, serving decorative purposes. Among them, the turquoise dragon-shaped object with inlaid gold flakes unearthed from the Panlongcheng site in Huangpi, Hubei, is particularly exquisite. This piece features a turquoise main body complemented by gold-flake brows, eyes, and teeth.

Exchanges between East and West

Internationally, the discovery of gold masks in archaeological excavations is relatively rare. One notable instance occurred in an ancient Greek royal tomb dating back to the Mycenaean era. Archaeologists uncovered a gold mask adorning the face of the deceased within this tomb, believed to belong to a noble of ancient Greek descent preceding the era of Agamemnon. This Greek gold mask dates back 3,500 years, slightly predating the gold mask unearthed from the Zhengzhou Shang City ruins.

To date, no gold artifacts preceding the Shang Dynasty have been found in the Central Plains, while gold ware predating the Shang era in China are mainly distributed in the northwest and north of the Great Wall. The earliest scientifically dated gold artifact is a gold and silver alloy earring unearthed from the Xiaohe Cemetery in Xinjiang. In addition, gold earrings have been uncovered at the Huoshaogou site of Siba culture, and gold ornaments at the Mogou site of Qiji culture in Gansu. These findings suggest that the sites located further west date back to earlier times. Therefore, it is very likely that the ancient Chinese custom of using gold originated in the northwest, influenced by the Eurasian Steppe culture, and then spread southeastward.

The custom of using gold had evidently spread to the Central Plains by the early Shang period at the latest, where it was adopted by the Shang people. In comparison to the items found in the northwest region, the gold artifacts from the early Shang period in the Central Plains present more complicated craftsmanship. Moreover, the Shang people endowed gold with distinctive local characteristics. The Shang was a society that placed a high value on hierarchical order, with bronze ritual vessels being important symbols of social status. After gold was introduced to the Central Plains, it quickly became popular due to its dazzling color, and was accepted by the upper echelons of Shang society, finally becoming integrated into the ritual culture of the Shang Dynasty.

Through interactions with diverse civilizations in Central and Western Asia, the use of gold gradually spread from the northwest and northern steppes to the Yellow and Yangtze river basins, where it was assimilated and reshaped by Chinese civilization. Evidence suggests that as Chinese civilization expanded into surrounding areas, gold culture further disseminated to regions such as the southwest and the Lingnan region, where it integrated into local indigenous cultures. Thus, the history of gold usage serves as a vivid testament to the ongoing integration of Chinese civilization with neighboring cultures.

Yuan Guangkuo is a professor from the School of History at Capital Normal University.