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Chinese Chimes and Chariots Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003
by Jarrett A. Lobell


China's largest chariot pit contains thirty-three chariots from the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). (Wanghu/Imagine China) [LARGER IMAGE]

A wealth of musical instruments, historical documents written on bamboo slips, and a pit filled with thirty-three bronze battle chariots are among the astonishing finds recently recovered from two Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) tombs in central China. The more than 2,000 objects comprise the largest and best preserved collection of artifacts from the Chu State, one of the strongest of the seven Warring States, which at its peak ruled all of southern China.

Ongoing excavations have revealed a three-foot-tall elevated drum on a bronze support of phoenixes standing atop tigers, one of the largest drums ever found; a se, a twenty-five-string plucked instrument, the first of its kind; and dozens of chimes, including a set of bianzhong bronze chimes, which were symbols of high status, wealth, and power. Li Youping of the Wuhan Conservatory of Music says the chimes are "of such variety and so well-preserved that they could still be used to give a concert."

Ancient Chinese musical instruments have seen a surge of interest since the 1977 discovery of sixty-four bronze bells from the Warring States Period tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng ("Bells of Bronze Age China," January/ February 1994, p. 42).

[image]Conservators clean bronze phoenix-and-tiger pedestals that once supported a three-foot-tall drum. (Chen Yong/Imagine China) [LARGER IMAGE]

In addition to the musical instruments, the tombs' excavation has also yielded bronze cauldrons and other vessels, and a rare bronze lamp decorated with a scene of a man holding a lamp and a bird. Thirty-three bronze battle chariots and the bones of seventy-two horses are also buried at the site, in what is the largest chariot pit ever found in China. One of the chariots is a rare six-horse type that until now was thought only to have belonged to emperors of the earlier Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 B.C.).

A thousand three-foot-long bamboo slips found in a tomb may have recorded writings on astronomy, music, and divination, as well as information on politics, economics, art, and religion. Along with inscriptions on bronze vessels and swords found at this and other Chu period sites, bamboo slips from the Chu State represent the only Chinese historical documents that pre-date the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.), during which the historical documents of all previous states were destroyed.

The removal of a red coffin, left, from one of the two tombs, right
(Chen Yong/Imagine China)

Unfortunately, like other recent excavations of wealthy Chinese tombs (see "Warriors of Clay"), the tombs owners remain a mystery. The opening of a bright-red coffin found in one of the two tombs was broadcast live on state-run television, but viewers were disappointed when the male skeletal remains inside offered no obvious indicators of identity. A bronze sword with a possible inscription, found by the skeleton's side, might provide some clues. Experts note that the body was buried facing east to allow the occupant to inspect the chariots and horses buried in front of him when he sat up. They believe the tomb may belong to a senior official or general of the Chu State.

Archaeologists now face the enormous task of recording and conserving the thousands of artifacts from the ongoing excavations. "Archaeology is a science that demands boring research," concedes head excavator Wang Hongxing of the Hubei Provincial Archaeological Institute. "It's not an Aladdin story of treasure-seeking."

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America