Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Shang City Uncovered Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Excavations in the largest walled city of the Shang Dynasty (Zhichun Jing) [LARGER IMAGE]

The largest walled city of the Shang Dynasty, possibly one of the capitals of the empire, has been unearthed at Anyang in northern China. The city dates to the Middle Shang period (ca. 1450-1250 B.C.), a little understood time in the study of Shang culture. A regional survey undertaken last fall by the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Archaeometry Laboratory at the University of Minnesota revealed four rammed earth walls that enclosed 1,160 acres of area. The site is now named the Huanbei Shang City (Huanbei means north of the Huan River).

The Shang were the first literate culture in East Asia and are well known for crafting ornate bronze ritual vessels. They were also China's first administrators, developing a coherent bureaucracy for their empire, and were able to marshall the human labor required to build rammed earth walls such as those found at the Huanbei Shang City.

Oracle-bone inscriptions place the last Shang capital at a site called Yinxu in Anyang. Initiated in 1996, the survey investigated patterns of settlement in the Middle Shang to find out how Yinxu became the penultimate Shang capital. Last fall an intensive underground survey began in an area a mile to the northeast of Yinxu after coring in 1997 yielded remains predating Yinxu. New corings suggested a huge city buried eight feet beneath the surface--the Huanbei Shang City.

Like other states in early China, the Shang relocated their capital on a number of occasions, and linking the Huanbei Shang City to a capital mentioned by the ancient texts has proved difficult. Pan Geng, the nineteenth Shang king, is thought to have moved the capital to Anyang, possibly founding the Huanbei Shang City, but preliminary analysis of ceramic vessels from the site place it in an earlier era. Some early texts credit He Tan Jia, the twelfth Shang king, with moving the capital to Xiang, a site traditionally placed in Anyang. Thus the Huanbei Shang city may also be the Xiang mentioned in the historic sources.

The discovery is being praised as showing the research potential of Chinese-American scientific partnerships, which have been rare until recently. "This highlights the advantages in the new openness in Chinese archaeology," says Robert E. Murowchick, director of the International Center for East Asian Archaeology and Cultural History. "There's much to be gained by merging Chinese and Western science and methodologies." More intensive site surveys are planned at the Huanbei Shang City for this season, with research focusing on how the city grew and was finally abandoned.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America