The Chinese Northern Frontier: Reassessment of the Bronze Age Burial from Baifu

By Csorba, Mrea | Antiquity, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The Chinese Northern Frontier: Reassessment of the Bronze Age Burial from Baifu


Csorba, Mrea, Antiquity


All across the thousands of kilometres of northern central Asia - from the Baltic Sea to the Yellow Sea - burials have been key to the later prehistoric sequence. The immediate subjects of this article are three late Bronze Age burials from North China; rich and well-preserved with weaponry and horse fittings, with agate and rush matting, they tell also of the world outside China, for into one of the daggers is cast the full-face image of a Caucasian male, complete with handlebar moustache.

In 1975, Chinese archaeologists located three Bronze Age burials in Baifu, Changping County, Hebei Province, just north of Beijing (Beijing 1976) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Excavation of two graves, M2 and M3 ('M' is the abbreviation for mu, the Chinese word for tomb), yielded bronze and ceramic vessels, an assortment of weaponry, horse and chariotry fittings, small carvings of jade, agate and bone, sections of rush matting, and human and animal remains, including oracle bones. M1 was seriously deteriorated with few remains: two samples from its wooden coffin provided 14C determinations of 3070[+ or -]90 b.p. and 2895[+ or -]100 b.p. (Institute of Archeology 1991: 16) calibrated to 1348-1039 BC, a period which corresponds to the late Shang (1320 BC-1045 BC) and early Western Zhou (1045 BC-771 BC) dynasties in China's Central Plain.(1) From typologies of tomb objects, scholars place them at a date coeval with the early Western Zhou.

Many of the bronze vessels and weapons are recognizably Chinese in style and distributed in the Chinese manner along the perimeters of the preserved tombs. In addition, jade carvings, oracle bones, and tomb features such as subterranean 'waist' pits under the interred led excavators to conclude the burials were Chinese. Contradictory evidence on site challenges this interpretation.

Within arm's length of the deceased were a hilted knife and several daggers not of Chinese manufacture [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. Two hilted daggers were found in M2 among a special grouping of artefacts placed to the upper right of the deceased. A similar cluster in the same location in M3 contained the rest of the daggers from the site. Cast on the pommel of one of the daggers in M2 was the full-face image of a Caucasian male whose Europoid features are augmented by bushy eyebrows and handlebar moustache [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. The dagger was thought to have a mushroom-cap pommel like that on three others from the Baifu site, but upon recognizing the face it becomes apparent that the pitted surface of the cap comes not from deterioration, but as an artistic rendering of the Caucasian's tightly curled head of hair.

The placement of foreign weaponry so close to the interred shifts the weight of evidence and assigns the grave outside the Shinese sphere. Furthermore, the parallel layout of the hilted weapons and other Northern material in the two graves suggests that rituals of an extant tradition are being followed - a thesis supported by piecemeal evidence from sites across China's northern border. The material evidence, substantiated by some contextualized data, argues for the existence of a Northern culture that maintains an independent tradition despite obvious interface with China's civilization to the south.

Non-Chinese artefacts have been collected in northern China since the beginning of the 20th century AD. The finds are distributed across an area from Shenxi to Liaoning, with a southern boundary marked by remnants of the Great Wall. This 'Northern Zone' is ecologically transitional between China's agrarian Central Plain and the arid steppe lands of Central Asia where climate and topography are conducive to adaptive life-ways involving mounted animal husbandry.

Cultural remains from the Northern Zone reflect the marginal ecology. In contrast to the excavated accoutrements of power and prestige from the Chinese dynasties along the Yellow River, Northern material is characteristically modest and portable - hilted knives and daggers, plaques, belt buckles and equestrian pieces, recovered as strays and without pottery or association with habitation sites (Andersson 1933).

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