Sanzuodian: The Structure, Function and Social Significance of the Earliest Stone Fortified Sites in China

Article excerpt



The site of Sanzuodian ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) was fully exposed during salvage excavations conducted as part of the construction of a local dam on the Yin River ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in the Chifeng region of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (Figures 1 & 2). The site, associated with the Lower Xiajiadian culture ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and dated to the beginning of the second millennium BC, is extremely well preserved. It contains house foundations, enclosures, installations and paved roads, though its most impressive feature is a defensive wall made of stone, complete with semi-circular towers, which in some places stand up to 4m high. Similar fortified sites, dating to the early second millennium BC, are known flora the adjacent area. To the best of our knowledge these sites are among the earliest examples of stone fortifications in China.


The Chifeng region is located in a semi-arid zone in north-eastern China, in an area traditionally considered to be outside of the 'cradle of Chinese civilisation'. It has commonly been assumed, therefore, that the adoption of agriculture and other pivotal socio-cultural traits of societies arrived here flora the south, and at a relatively late date (e.g. Shi 1986: 22; Yan 1992). However, recent research has challenged this presumption by showing that the transition to agriculture and sedentary life took place in the Chifeng region at approximately the same time as in the Yellow River basin, around 800km to the south (Shelach 2000, 2006). Moreover, it would seem that, while the area was not completely isolated flora other regions, its socio-political and economic trajectory is almost entirely independent of external influences prior to the Chinese imperial era.

This paper focuses on the unique phenomenon of the Lower Xiajiadian fortified sites and addresses important questions concerning their construction and function. A GIS analysis of the spatial distribution of fortified sites is used to understand the larger picture and to place the Lower Xiajiadian fortifications within their broader context. This is followed by an examination of the building methods used at Sanzuodian and an assessment of the amount of labour required to construct the fortifications, with the intention of thus revealing the social and political organisation of these settlements.


The history of research on the Lower Xiajiadian fortifications

Although the majority of Lower Xiajiadian sites were not fortified, the excellent preservation of the fortified sites, with remains clearly visible above the surface, makes them the most notable feature of prehistoric settlements in the Chifeng region. Preliminary reports on these sites appeared in the early years of the People's Republic of China (Tong 1957) and in the early 1960s several dozen sites were reported during a survey along the Yingjinhe ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and Yinhe ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) rivers (Xu 1986). From an examination of the surface remains of Lower Xiajiadian defensive systems, one can clearly see that they were made up of large stone walls, some reaching 10m in width. Some of the larger sites are surrounded by two large stone walls separated by a ditch. The exterior walls are sometimes reinforced with semi-circular watchtowers and fortified gates. Inside those walls, stone circles and lines of stones, presumably the remains of houses, are also visible (Xu 1986; Shelach 1999; Liaoning 2001).

While such general descriptions have already appeared in the scientific literature, a more detailed analysis of the structure and composition of Lower Xiajiadian fortified sites has not yet been attempted. In recent years this situation has improved with large-scale excavations at the site of Kangjiatun ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) near Beipiao City, Liaoning province, which was excavated between 1997 and 2000 (Liaoning 2001); and the Sanzuodian ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) site itself, almost completely excavated between 2005 and 2006 (Neimenggu 2007). …