Large-scale Cemetery of the Yangshao culture found in Yangguanzhai site, Shaan’xi
Yangguanzhai site is a large central settlement of middle and late Yangshao Culture in central Shaanxi Area, which is located in Gaoling County, Shaan’xi province, approximately 25 kilometers north of the ancient city of Xi’an in northwest China. From 2015 to 2017, a large cemetery paralleling with surrounded moat of the settlement has been found during archaeological excavations of northeast section outside the settlement by Shaan’xi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, covering about 90,000 square meters in total. So far, about 3800 square meter has been uncovered. 336 prehistoric tombs have been confirmed and 172 of them have been cleared.
Aerial photo of the cemetery in Yangguanzhai Site
Tombs and Assemblage
Tombs excavated from this season are all small ones in rectangular plan. Tomb structures could be divided into two types, cave tombs and earthen shaft pit tombs. All tombs are east-west oriented. There are seemingly round post-hole remains in east or west ends of some tomb passages, being predicted to place banners (special flags used in ritual practices). It’s speculated that a very thorough and integrated plan was carried out in the construction processes of the cemetery.
Side-cave tombs M283
According to cave’s location, cave tombs can be divided into two sub-types, side-cave tombs and half-cave tombs. Side-cave tombs all have rectangular shaft passages. On one side of tomb passage, a cave was dug to bury the dead. Construction of caves should be under strict calculation, thus the caves were all slightly higher than the dead’s height. Side-cave tombs take more than 80% of all the tombs that uncovered so far. Half cave tomb is relatively special tomb form. There is always a cave being dug in west wall of tomb and aligned to main chamber. The cave is about 20-65cm long, like a niche. Only skulls or upper bodies of the dead can be placed in it. This kind of tombs are relatively few, only more than 10 tombs are uncovered.
Tomb owner with bone hair-pin and stone ring
Earthen shaft pit tombs can be divided into two sub-types, with second-tier platform and without second-tier platform . Some tombs without a second-tier platform have a rectangular earthen shaft pit to bury dead. Walls of pit are relatively straight. There are only a few tombs without second-tier platforms, only more than 10 tombs. The others with a second-tier platform have a tomb chamber in the center where skeletons are usually placed. Half-cave were dug into the west side of the chamber in a few tomb, taking about 10% of all tombs excavated.
All tombs are single burials with relatively complete skeleton of the deceased. No wooden burial furniture has been unearthed yet. However, there were remains of textile fabrics seemingly being used to wrap up skeletons in some tombs. Tomb owners were all lying on their backs with outstretched limbs, heading the west. In some tombs, there were traces that finger bones were moved away. Some were found around skulls, and some were discovered in the filling soil. These seem to imply cutting-body burial ritual or unusual death. According to preliminary examination, inhabitants of the cemetery have close relationships with Eastern Asiatic Mongoloid. Most of the dead were middle-aged, and a few were infants and children. No senior people were found at all.
3D image of tomb M176
Relatively few burial gifts were uncovered from the tombs. There are only a few tombs having daily-used potteries, such as vases with pointed-base, painted pottery basins, painted pottery pots, sand-tempered jars, bo-bowls, cups and so on. Some skeletons even wore personal ornaments, like bone hairpins, stone rings or pottery rings, stone bi-rings, string of stone beads and bone beads and etc. Tools like jade axes were unearthed from some tombs, too. Besides, there were plenty of broken pottery vessels found in the joint of tomb passage and tomb chamber as well as in the filling soil. Moreover, pigments and turtle shells uncovered from some tombs are the earliest one found in the central Shaanxi plain.
Painted pottery pot(left) and pottery cup
Pottery bowl bo and painted pottery basin
Preliminary understanding and academic significance
According to burial gifts, C14 dates and related materials, we can predict that the cemetery should belong to Miaodigou period of Yangshao Culture. Thus, it’s the first large adult cemetery of Miaodigou period found in China so far. The excavation gave us the opportunity to gain a deeper insight into the settlement patterns and social structures of Yangguanzhai Site. Besides, side-cave tombs uncovered should be the earliest remains found ever before and bring emergence of this kind tombs 500 years earlier. They are precious archaeological materials for research on origins and spread of this kind of tombs as well as cultural exchanges and influences between the central Shaanxi plain and west China, and even the West world. (Translator: Ma Huanhuan Photo: Archaeology Press IA CASS)