The Archaeology of Dian: Trends and Tradition

By Allard, Francis | Antiquity, March 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Archaeology of Dian: Trends and Tradition


Allard, Francis, Antiquity


Beginning with the excavation of the necropolis of Shizhaishan during the late 1950s, sustained fieldwork in the province of Yunnan in southwest China has led to the identification of a Bronze Age archaeological culture - usually named 'Dian' - said to extend over much of eastern Yunnan during the second half of the 1st millennium BC [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. In dramatic fashion, the wide range of technically complex and stylistically distinct bronzes recovered from its numerous wealthy burials have helped paint the Dian as a hierarchical society which was clearly more than a simple offshoot of the contemporary states centred in the Yellow and Yangzi river valleys of north and central China.

The continued interest in Dian culture on the part of both Chinese and foreign archaeologists has been fuelled not only by its impressive material culture, but also by its possible historical associations. The Shiji ('Records of the Historian'), written in about 100 BC by the Hah dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) historian Sima Qian, is the first document to speak of a native 'Dian kingdom' centred near lake Dian in present-day eastern Yunnan (translated in Watson 1961). We read that, prior to its subjugation by the Han empire in 109 BC, the Dian had been one of the most powerful of a multitude of ethnic groups inhabiting the remote and mountainous regions of southwest China. Unfortunately, the Shiji and later texts tell us very little about the political organization and social customs of the illiterate Dian, since these Chinese documents deal mainly with matters of importance to the conquerors - trade and warfare. Archaeology, which has yet to contribute significantly toward redressing this imbalance, nevertheless continues to bolster the image of a hierarchical, highly creative and militarily powerful Bronze Age society inhabiting pre-Han Yunnan. This brief survey of Dian archaeology first reviews its many successes over the past four decades, including the results of more recent investigations as yet unpublished in English. It ends with a discussion of the forces which continue shaping Dian archaeology into a discipline which, methodologically and interpretively, remains somewhat at odds with contemporary western style archaeology.

Archaeological fieldwork

Much of the fieldwork aimed at the Bronze Age of eastern Yunnan has been concentrated in a 'central lakes region' encompassing the nearby lakes of Dian, Fuxian and Xingyun [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. Along with numerous articles and books in Chinese on the subject, a number of publications in English provide brief or more extensive reviews of Dian archaeology and its historical record (Allard 1998; von Dewall 1967; Higham 1996: 142-73; Murowchick 1989; Rawson 1983; Rudolph 1960; Sun & Xiong 1983; Wang 1991; below, relevant Chinese publications are mentioned only in the case of pre-1990 fieldwork not yet discussed in the English literature, or fieldwork carried out after 1990. The reader is asked to consult the above English references when no source is mentioned). Significantly, research continues to focus on burial sites in this central lakes area, a region whose apparent political primacy has yet to be challenged by the still-emerging evidence. Unfortunately, the task of interpreting the burial evidence is itself made more difficult by the scarcity of radiocarbon dates and the frequent absence of cemetery plans or lists of burial contents and features in the site reports.

Along with weapons and tools, wealthy Dian burials have yielded many distinctive bronzes, including small sculptures, forearm armour, buckle ornaments and other plaques (some decorated with precious stones or 'animal combat' scenes in the round), seals, vessels and musical instruments. From some of the burials, archaeologists have also recovered the remains of coffins as well as impressive bronze drums (decorated with various scenes on the tympanum and side panels) and cowrie shell containers (some of the latter topped by realistic ritual, battle, weaving and tribute scenes cast in the round) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED].

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