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New findings at China’s Shuanghuaishu site

YUAN GUANGKUO | 2022-08-15 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Nine ceramic pots arranged in the pattern of the nine stars of the Big Dipper at the Shuanghuaishu site 

The Shuanghuaishu site is located in the south of Shuanghuaishu Village in the township of Heluo, Gongyi County, Henan Province. Dating back to around 5,000 years ago, or the middle and late Yangshao period (c. 5000–3000 BCE), this large ancient capital is located on the high plateau where the Yi River and Luo River meet and flow into the Yellow River. This region is also known as the Heluo area, an area recorded as the “center of the world” in ancient texts.
New archaeological findings
From 2013 to 2020, the Zhengzhou Municipal Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology conducted continuous archaeological excavations on the Shuanghuaishu site, and found rich cultural relics. The most notable relics are the three ring trenches, the rammed-earth foundations for building courtyards, cemeteries, sacrificial altar remains, an astronomical relic where nine ceramic pots were arranged in the pattern of the nine stars of the Big Dipper, and other facilities, as well as relics such as painted pottery and a boar tusk carving of a silkworm.
Shuanghuaishu is in an elevated position, which made it an ideal place for agricultural activities in ancient times. The site is surrounded by three ring trenches, including the inner ring moat, the middle ring moat, and the outer ring moat, which divide the site into three parts. The moats are wide and deep, with each found to have external access through drawbridges and gateways.
The core region of the cluster was found within the inner ring moat. There is a wall in the northern part of the core region, and the central residential area was enclosed with the wall and the inner ring moat. To the south of the wall are large rammed-earth foundations for building courtyards, aristocratic cemeteries, and rammed-earth sacrificial altars. There are three strictly planned large public cemeteries and rammed-earth altars between the middle and outer moats. The distance between the inner moat and the middle moat is not far, with little room for any practical constructions or arrangement. However, the same curvature and height of the inner moat and the middle moat indicate that they might be planned intentionally and symbolize li [a Chinese term for social norms and propriety, which differentiates between people in a community in terms of age, kinship, and social status, by setting regulations about ceremonial vessels, rituals, and systems]. This layout created a precedent for capital design—consisting of a palace city (gong-cheng), an inner city (nei-cheng), and an outer city (guo-cheng)—replicated by the following dynasties, including the Xia (c. 21st century–16th century BCE), Shang (c. 16th century–11th century BCE), and Zhou (c. 1046–256 BCE) dynasties.
Grand rammed-earth foundations for building courtyards and square were discovered within the inner ring moat of the Shuanghuaishu site, spanning an area of more than 5,300 square meters. Among the three exposed compounds that were once built upon the foundations, the excavation work has unveiled the clear layout of two, the No.1 and No.2 courtyards. 
At the western side of the rammed-earth foundations lies Courtyard No.1, a rectangular-shaped courtyard, covering more than 1,300 square meters. The main doorway is found on the east side of the south wall, with traces of symmetrical pillars and steps. A number of houses were found in the courtyard, of which F76 is a 308-square-meter work of architecture. Outside the courtyard, past the south wall, a large area with human activity traces at the same period as the courtyard wall has been unearthed, which is supposed to be a square. The discovery of Courtyard No. 1 further indicates that the cluster might have been the political center at that time.
 Courtyard No.2 is situated on the eastern side of the foundations, covering around 1,500 square meters, with three gateways on the south, east, and north walls. The gateway on the south wall is divided into three entrances by doorposts, thus forming the three-entrance gateway [a traditional gateway design in China]. Densely distributed columns were found in the courtyard, suggesting a complex layout and structure. The archaeologists believe that the three-entrance gateway design is basically the same as that of Palace No. 1 at the Erlitou site [which existed in present-day Luoyang, Henan Province, from 3,800 to 3,500 years ago] and the gateways of the later high-grade buildings. This highlights the large-scale constructions of the Shuanghuaishu site as one of the origins [of capital planning in ancient China]. 
Exploration at the Shuanghuaishu site has uncovered large public cemeteries and rammed-earth altars, and more than 1,700 tombs of the middle and late Yangshao Culture period, which are divided into four zones. The tombs in Zone No.1, where some tombs have been excavated, are arranged in neat rows. The distance between the rows is 15-18 meters. The tombs are all east-west oriented. The remains of each person were buried with heads pointing west. Few grave goods were found within the tombs. The tombs of high-rank nobles are distributed in the inner ring moat instead, and ivory burials were unearthed from a large tomb there.
Three sacrificial altars were found, including one in Zone No.1 and two in Zone No.2. A sacrificial altar excavated so far is in rectangular shape, with an area of nearly 260 square meters. Four pillar holes on the altar indicate that there used to be four tall wooden pillars on the altar.
Archaeologists also discovered nine pots arranged in the pattern of the nine stars of the Big Dipper constellation in front of the building remains named F12, a house in the central residential area. An intact body of an elk was excavated near the position of the “North Star” in front of the bowl of the Big Dipper. This arrangement shows that the ancestors of Shuanghuaishu might have had a grasp of astronomical knowledge, and they might have noticed the relationship between changes in astronomical phenomena and agricultural production activities.
In addition, numerous painted potteries, stone tools, bone tools, and carbonized crop seeds were also unearthed at the Shuanghuaishu site, among which the most representative relic is a boar tusk carving of a spinning silkworm. This carving, along with silk fabrics unearthed at the surrounding Wanggou site and Qingtai site [dating to the same period], strongly indicates that the ancient Chinese, around present-day Zhengzhou, Henan Province, had formed a relatively complete system of silkworm farming and silk production around 5,300 years ago. 
To sum up, the Shuanghuaishu site is a settlement that has been carefully planned and laid out. The structure of each functional area is clear, reflecting strong organizational coordination [within the community]. The central residential area, the huge rammed-earth foundations, the rammed-earth altars, and the cemeteries are roughly distributed along a straight line, a hint of early Chinese palace architecture.
The ancient kingdom
Archaeologists point out that many findings at this site are the “oldest” that have ever been found in China, such as the antecedent of a weng-cheng [literally known as an urn city, a form of defensive architecture in ancient China that featured a semicircle or square enclosure built outside a city gate as part of the city wall], the earliest “palace” in China, the earliest rammed-earth altars discovered dated to the Yangshao Culture period, and the “Big Dipper.” These findings undoubtedly mark the social changes of this period [the middle and late Yangshao period].
The first change was the collapse of the centripetal layout of clusters. In the early days of Peiligang-Yangshao culture [Peiligang Culture is a Neolithic culture in modern Henan Province, existing from 7000 to 5000 BCE], small and medium-sized clusters with a compact cohesive and centripetal structure were popular in the Central Plain. The clan was the most basic economic unit and dominated people’s production and life. During the middle Yangshao period, large clusters spanning over hundreds of thousands of square meters emerged, and the previous cohesive and centripetal layout with large houses as the core gradually disappeared. In the late Yangshao period, the hierarchy of clusters was particularly obvious, and clan became less important while the role of kinship or family gradually became more prominent.
The second change of the time was that the process of civilization was accelerating, and the ancient kingdom came into being. The emergence of large-scale moat settlements and city sites is the result of the continuous development of a region’s politics and economy. The construction of city walls and trenches is huge, requiring a lot of manpower and material resources. It cannot be done by merely one or two clusters.  
The discovery of big houses with high standard, rammed-earth buildings, and sacrifice-related remains all indicate the stratification of the Shuanghuaishu cluster and the emergence of the li concept, which did not exist in the surrounding settlements of the same period. It indicates that the Shuanghuaishu cluster had a highly complex society. The social stratification and hierarchical differentiation within and between settlements at that time was very significant, especially around present-day Zhengzhou area. The clusters surrounded by ring moats appeared in a large number. They were located around the Shuanghuaishu cluster, thus forming a “pyramid-type” hierarchical structure with the Shuanghuaishu cluster as the core among many small and medium-sized settlements. Such a social form can be viewed as an ancient kingdom.
The Shuanghuaishu site is the highest-standard core cluster with the nature of a capital city discovered so far in the Yellow River basin in the golden stage of the formation of Chinese civilization. A series of archaeological discoveries make it possible to explore the “Central Plain Model” of the origins of Chinese civilization.
Yuan Guangkuo is a professor from the School of History at Capital Normal University.