An exhibition reveals the influence of the Ni state on Shang Dynasty rulers, Lin Qi reports.
In the spring of 2015, after a series of small explosions occurred in Jiuwutou, a village outside Yuncheng city in Shanxi province, police caught some men suspected of raiding ancient tombs.
On-site investigations by police and archaeologists revealed that the attempt was to rob the cemetery of a noble family from the late Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC). It had been robbed more than once before. "Tomb raiders" had used dynamite and probe poles to create holes in the graves.
Excavations at the site found that four tombs had been looted of burial objects, with only pieces of broken pottery and bronzeware left behind.
Ma Sheng, deputy head of the Archaeology Institute of Shanxi Province at the time, recalls that he was "frustrated, desperate and furious" when he heard about the raids.
After that, archaeologists began a systematic excavation at the site. Their work, which took place over the course of a year, unveiled the face of a Shang state that had faded into history over 3,000 years ago.
Twelve tombs, with more than 500 artifacts of ceremonial bronzeware, jade, pottery and bones, were found in an area covering more than 5,500 square meters. And lying there were remains of the Ni clan members, the high-class nobles appointed by the Shang emperor to rule the state of Ni in today's Jiuwutou.
The groundbreaking discovery at the site was elected as one of the top 10 archaeological findings in China in 2018. Now, the story of the Ni state and Shang hierarchy are in focus at Glory of Hedong, an exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing, which is set to run through Dec 25.
Hedong refers to an area in Shanxi where the Yellow River flows and which is home to ancient cultures like the Ni state. The display of some 170 artifacts marks the first comprehensive public-viewing of archaeological discoveries that have been unearthed at the Jiuwutou site.
Gao Zhenhua, the exhibition curator and a member of the on-site archaeology team, says, "The Shang empire exerted rigid hierarchy and funeral rules, such as what-and how many-objects to bury with the deceased in accordance with the obvious distinctions in class."
He says his team unearthed many objects made from pottery, jade and bronze, as well as weapons and chariot apparatus that indicate people buried in the Jiuwutou area hailed from high aristocracy-meaning they were below the royal family but above other elites at the time.
The team also found that the tombs were built with passageways, a rare architectural feature that Gao says was exclusive to the graves of the royal family and senior aristocrats during the Shang period.
Researchers identified a frequently appearing character inscribed on the bronzeware as ni. They believe it refers to the surname Ni, a family that controlled a state bordering the Shang empire. Shang bronze items bearing the same character are also seen in museum collections elsewhere.
Further studies of the natural conditions that surround the Jiuwutou tombs prove the Ni state's importance to the Shang emperors.
Gao says the site is close to salt lakes and a copper belt. Salt production at the time was not developed, but the lakes near Jiuwutou became a major, stable source of salt for the Shang, which gave the Ni state a considerable influence over the rulers.
He says copper mines were of strategic importance to the Shang, a dynasty marked by the manufacturing of sophisticated, ceremonial bronzeware that symbolized state power.
"It is highly possible that a Shang emperor dispatched the Ni family to Jiuwutou to establish a domain state. The family safeguarded the production and transportation of salt and copper-two resources of rarity and strategic importance-to the dynasty's center."
He says the Ni state, which was on Shang's northwestern border, neighbored many enemy states and was vital to the dynasty's stability. The important position of Ni explains the great number of weapons and chariot apparatus buried in six of the pits at the Jiuwutou tombs.
Gao says the many sets of drinking vessels found at the site also show the social position of the Ni family.
Zhang Yuancheng, director of Shanxi Museum, says the number and types of bronze items owned by noble families varied according to rank. People in Shang drank a lot of alcohol-a habit that later contributed to the dynasty's downfall-and they manufactured many vessels. At another site, in Henan province, more than half of some 210 bronze containers for drinking were found in the tomb of Shang consort Fu Hao.
The vessels from Jiuwutou reflect the Shang era's great attention to drinking rituals. Objects on show at the ongoing exhibition include those used for heating and storing liquor.
The exhibition also emphasizes the ongoing fight against tomb raiders. Several pieces of bronzeware that were looted from Jiuwutou were recovered by police, but experts cannot ascertain which tombs they were taken from. It means that part of the picture of the Ni state remains incomplete.
Gao hopes that the exhibition will increase public awareness about protecting cultural relics.(By Lin Qi | China Daily)