Published: 12:46, September 20, 2022 | Updated: 12:45, September 20, 2022
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Construction work uncovers buried treasures in Henan's provincial capital
By Wang Kaihao

Highlighted relics recently unearthed from the Shang Dynasty graveyard in Zhengzhou include a bronze wine container known as jue. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In the busy downtown area of Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan province, a recent excavation is ushering people to imagine a shining period of prosperity far back in time.

Archaeological research in the 1950s confirmed that an ancient city from the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th-11th century BC) was buried underneath the modern metropolis in the heart of China's central plains, referred by scholars as the Shang City of Zhengzhou.

Even as such history is underfoot, more major discoveries within the modern downtown area are unexpected after decades of excavations, considering continuous construction and development over the long course of history.

However, it turns out that the site still has stories to tell. In a news conference with the National Cultural Heritage Administration in Beijing on Friday, a Shang Dynasty graveyard of social elites unearthed from Shuyuan Street of Zhengzhou was unveiled to the public.

Highlighted relics recently unearthed from the Shang Dynasty graveyard in Zhengzhou include a 40-gram gold artifact, believed to have been used to cover the face of one of those interred. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Discovered accidentally during urban construction, the site was scrutinized by researchers of Zhengzhou Municipal Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology from May to August.

According to Huang Fucheng, a leading archaeologist on the site, 25 tombs, within an area of 10,000 square meters, remain intact and three of them contain bronzeware burial items.

Unlike contemporaneous discoveries in West Asia, where the bronzeware unearthed are statues or items considered to have been for daily use, Chinese bronzeware of the time was used in rituals to indicate people's high social status.

"The findings also show that this area was well-designed, governed and organized," Huang says. "The exceptional identities of the occupants of the tombs will be further revealed by other unearthed artifacts."

Highlighted relics recently unearthed from the Shang Dynasty graveyard in Zhengzhou include a jade fish. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

As well as bronze ritual items and weapons, 11 jade items, 123 cowries and decorations made of turquoise were also unearthed.

Nonetheless, the biggest surprise among the findings is perhaps five gold artifacts, some of which are believed to have once covered the faces of those interred there. However, Huang says the specific use of these gold artifacts is still a matter of speculation.

For an early stage Chinese civilization, the use of gold artifacts was exotic. Chen Xingcan, director of the Institute of Archaeology with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says it was more common to use gold in burials in the West.

It also reminds the public of the discoveries of gold masks at the Sanxingdui site in Sichuan province, dating back 3,200 to 3,000 years.

"The findings may also show a grand picture of cultural communication across the Eurasian grassland," Chen says. "Comparative studies are required to get more clues so that we can develop a much wider lens through which to view the Shang Dynasty."

Highlighted relics recently unearthed from the Shang Dynasty graveyard in Zhengzhou include a bronze vessel known as lei. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Carbon dating shows the graveyard is about 3,400 years old, around the middle period of the Shang Dynasty, earlier than the Yinxu Ruins in Anyang, Henan province, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unearthed oracle bone inscriptions, the oldest-known extant Chinese characters, proved Yinxu to be the last capital of the Shang Dynasty.

Huang says he believes the discovery of the graveyard can help scholars clarify how the Shang City of Zhengzhou developed during its time and better show its status, possibly as a Shang capital in an earlier period than Yinxu.

"The pottery shards found at the grave site also show a continuous lineage of time," Huang says. "They indicate that the Shang City of Zhengzhou played the role as a core settlement for a long period."

Lei Xingshan, a professor at the Capital Normal University in Beijing, says, "The rare finding of a graveyard of this time provides key materials to indicate how the early stage Chinese civilization was formed. It can also inspire studies about the social systems of early state capitals, as well as their economy."