Sanyangzhuang: Early Farming and a Han Settlement Preserved beneath Yellow River Flood Deposits

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The Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) administered one of the world's great empires, rivalling its western contemporary, Rome. Much is known about the Han from contemporary histories and from recent archaeology, but much of this information focuses on the imperial court and the activities of ruling elites or military authorities. At a time when trade along the Silk Road was enlarging contacts between China, South Asia and the Mediterranean world, we have very little archaeological knowledge about the everyday lives of the people in eastern China who underwrote the imperial economy and produced the goods that were the focus of this fabled trade route. Archaeologists studying the Han era working in the Yellow River floodplain have focused almost exclusively on the royal cities of Chang'an and Luoyang, or on the excavation of thousands of Han-era tombs. Research on small settlements outside of the royal cities is nearly non-existent. Recent excavations at the remarkably well-preserved Sanyangzhuang site, however, provide an extraordinary opportunity to understand rural life during terminal Western Han times.

The geological setting

The Yellow River (Huanghe) has been the dominant force shaping the landscape and influencing human and natural environments in the Sanyangzhuang area. It flows through the easily eroded loess plateau of central China, bringing down massive quantities of sand, silt and clay that are deposited to form the alluvial plain east of Luoyang (Liu & Liang 1989: 223-4). The Yellow River has flooded its banks and shifted its position several times. As the river channel aggrades and channel gradients become increasingly steep, avulsions (natural break-outs) occur, or, in some instances, human breaches of dikes and lev4es (Cen 1957; Hsu 1980: 103; Xu, Fuling 1989; Wang, Yulei 2008).

For much of the Holocene the Yellow River flowed north from Luoyang to discharge into the Gulf of Bohai (Xu, Fuling 1989; Ye 1989: fig. 1) (Figure 1). The river was confined to the western edge of the Central Plains up to the end of the first decade of the first millennium AD. As the river channel aggraded and gradients increased, the river began shifting eastward. This process was probably accelerated by increasing sediment associated with human-induced erosion in the loess plateau (Ren& Zhu 1994; Xu, Jiongxin 2003; He et al. 2006; Huang et al. 2006). By Han times, the river frequently flooded the lower regions of Henan, Hebei and Shandong provinces (Sirna 1959:1409).

The archaeology of Sanyangzhuang

Sanyangzhuang is located north-west of the modern channel of the Yellow River in Henan Province (Henan 2010). The site was discovered in the course of digging an irrigation canal in 2003 and thereafter defined by coring and several c. 12m-deep profiles that extend back into deposits of Pleistocene age (Figure 2). These strata indicate that the Yellow River floodplain was marked by episodes of stability indicated by well-developed palaeosols, alternated with episodes of large-scale flooding (Figure 3). Four pre-Han palaeosols have been identified. The lower two, dated respectively to the Early and Middle Holocene, appear to be entirely natural. The next two palaeosols are ridged cultivation horizons, dated by ceramics in the fill to the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze age (Figure 3: 2a), and to the Warring States period (Figure 3: 3). The Han occupation of the site developed on the surface of a flood deposit following the Warring States occupation. The Han remains are covered by 3m of sediment from a massive Yellow River flood that catastrophically buried the site. Two more metres of overburden accumulated after the Han-era flood. (Figure 4).



We followed a three-part strategy for the investigation of Sanyangzhuang. First, an intensive programme of hand-operated coring was used to sample the subsurface remains in the area immediately around the site (Figure 2). …