Rethinking Erlitou: Legend, History and Chinese Archaeology

By Liu, Li; Xu, Hong | Antiquity, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Erlitou: Legend, History and Chinese Archaeology


Liu, Li, Xu, Hong, Antiquity


Introduction: Erlitou and its dynastic affiliations

The Erlitou site in the Yiluo basin of the Yellow River is the primary centre of the Erlitou culture (c. 1900-1500 BC), representing the largest urban settlement of the earliest archaic state developed in northern China. Discovered in the 1950s, Erlitou has been subjected to intensive excavations, revealing complex spatial layout including a palatial complex, elite and commoners' burials, residential areas, and workshops for making bronzes, turquoise, pottery and bone objects (e.g. Institute of Archaeology 1999; Xu 2004; Liu 2006). The discovery of these features, along with many elaborate bronze, jade and ceramic artefacts, points to a highly developed civilisation. Since archaeology is a text-oriented discipline in China (Falkenhausen 1993), the Erlitou site has continuously provoked controversial debates about its ethnic and historical identity, particularly its relationships with early dynasties, the Xia and Shang as recorded in ancient texts, which are believed to represent two different ethnic groups. Among Chinese archaeologists, the debates primarily focus on questions of historical identity, such as whether Erlitou was a capital city of the Xia or of the Shang, and there is a strong sense among specialists that it is their duty to determine Erlitou's exact dynastic affiliation. Indeed, it is a general methodology in Chinese archaeology to use dynastic chronology from later textual records as blueprints for archaeological investigations and interpretations. Although different studies have focused on various versions of the chronology from ancient texts, nevertheless all implicitly believe that one of the chronologies ought to be correct. This method has a fundamental problem. It lacks a critical examination of some general problems relating to the nature of prehistoric royal genealogies, which were derived from oral history rather than reliable written chronicles.

The recently completed Xia Shang Zhou Chronology Project (Lee 2002) assigned the Xia and Shang dynasties to c. 2070-1600 BC and c. 1600-1046 BC, respectively, while dating the Erlitou culture to c. 1880-1520 BC (Xia Shang Zhou Chronology Project Team 2000). Since the beginning of Xia predates the Erlitou culture, and the Erlitou culture crosscuts the Xia and Shang dynasties, these discrepancies have led to endless debates on which archaeological culture corresponds to the early Xia and which phase of the Erlitou culture represents the Xia-Shang transition (Liu 2001). The Erlitou culture is further divided into four phases, almost all of which have been identified, by different scholars, with the Xia-Shang transition. The most recent dominant opinion, by no means universally agreed, among the majority of Chinese archaeologists, views the time between Phase III and Phase IV as the period of this historical changeover. Since Erlitou Phase IV is believed to have shown a marked decline in population and the abandonment of some palatial structures, it is taken as a scenario of dynastic collapse (Gao et al. 1998).

In recent years, excavations and surveys at and around Erlitou have revealed much new data relating to the development and decline of this important urban centre (Erlitou Working Team 2004a & b; 200% & b; Xu et al 2004). These discoveries, nevertheless, have not helped to solve the mystery of Erlitou's dynastic affiliations, but have only made the problems more complex. In this article we will first summarise the new archaeological data, and then analyse the problems involved in the traditional approaches to the Erlitou site. We argue that many Chinese archaeologists have been misled by legendary chronologies, and it is now time to change this research orientation.

Development and decline of Erlitou

The Erlitou site, extending to 300ha as currently known, is today located on the southern bank of the Luo River (Figure 1). Years of intensive agricultural and land levelling activities have removed some upper levels of the ancient deposits, and large parts of the site are covered by three large modern villages. …

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