Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Vintage Altar of Heaven Volume 53 Number 2, March/April 2000
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] The Xian Altar of Heaven is the oldest of its kind found in China to date. It was reburied shortly after its excavation. (Feng Xiao Tang) [LARGER IMAGE]

The oldest-known altar used in Chinese state religious practice was unearthed, then reburied, this past summer in the city of Xian by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Uncontrolled development around a mysterious circular mound prompted a 30-day salvage excavation. Constructed as early as the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581-618), the so-called Altar of Heaven is more than 1,000 years older than a similar altar in Beijing, and is the only one found so far pre-dating the Qing Dynasty (A.D. 1644-1912). It is estimated that 17 Chinese emperors conducted religious rites here.

Chinese state religion, whose origins stretch back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) and perhaps as early as the Western Zhou Dynasty (1050-771 B.C.), involved the worship of heaven only by emperors, who were perceived as links between the earthly and celestial realms. Emperors mounted the steps of the Altar of Heaven barefoot, accompanied by an orchestra playing religious hymns, to prostrate themselves before celestial deities. Their effectiveness as emperors depended on the proper performance of ritual; otherwise they might be blamed for a bad harvest or other misfortunes.

Constructed of rammed earth and composed of four circular platforms that originally rose 26 feet high, the altar was uncovered a half mile southeast of Xian's southern gate, confirming references to it in ancient historical sources such as The Old History of the Tang Dynasty and The History of the Sui Dynasty. The sides and the surfaces of the altar's platforms were covered with a layer of yellow clay, and topped off with a quarter-inch thick layer of gray-white paste, made from seed husks and straw, that gave the altar a white appearance. The platforms were each between five and seven and one-half feet high and measured from 177 feet in diameter at the bottom to 65 feet at the top. Twelve equally spaced staircases, representing Chinese astronomers' division of the heavens into 12 parts, ascended from the ground to the highest platform. The 12 staircases are the most obvious peculiarity of the Xian Altar of Heaven. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, altars had only four staircases, and historical sources report that Han altars had only eight.

Interpretation and understanding of these altars have varied from scholar to scholar and from dynasty to dynasty, says An Jiayao, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences archaeologist who published the site report. According to historical records, the Han Dynasty emperor Wu Di conducted religious rites on an altar that was purple and beautifully ornamented. An says that the Xian altar shows that, by contrast, people during the Tang used natural materials and sought simplicity to show the heavens their respect and sincerity. The altar's construction may indeed have reflected a resurgence in state religious practice after years of neglect following the demise of the Han Dynasty in the third century A.D., says Timothy H. Barrett of the Univeristy of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. The religious rites that evolved in the Tang Dynasty were a "rethinking of Han practices," he notes.

The altar fell out of use as the Tang Dynasty faded in the tenth century. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences team was forced to rebury the altar only weeks after its discovery owing to a lack of funds for a public display. "We hope the altar will one day be open to the public," An told The Times of London. "It is a shame but money is a real problem."

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America