Shimao (Chine) : Human Sacrifices At Massive Pyramid Along Great Wall
a) a bird’s-eye view of the eastern gate (photograph courtesy of Zhouyong Sun and Jing Shao); b) a reconstruction of the eastern gate (modified after Guo et al. 2016: fig. 28); c) section of the northern tower (after Sun et al. 2013: fig. 8); d) plan of bastions near the eastern gate (image courtesy of Zhouyong Sun and Jing Shao).ANTIQUITY / JAANG ET AL. / 2018
An enormous walled settlement topped with a stepped pyramid was recently found in China at a site called Shimao, and was originally mistaken for part of the infamous Great Wall. The massive pyramid, totaling eleven separate platforms, was just one feature of this Bronze Age site that was built on at least six pits full of decapitated human heads which served as a building sacrifice.
In a study just published in the journal Antiquity, researcher Li Jaang of Zhengzhou University and colleagues from the Shaanxi Province Institute of Archaeology and the University of California Los Angeles argue that the newly uncovered Shimao site reveals clear, early evidence of a highly elaborate civilization in an area of China long assumed to have merely a peripheral habitation area.
The Shimao site is located along a tributary of the Yellow River in an area called the 'Northern Zone' which was thought to be a contact point between the Central Plains and the steppe. Because of the more well-known history of the Great Wall, which marked a transition between the ecological and cultural frontier between China and Inner Asia, the ancient peoples who lived north of this monumental first millennium BC construction were assumed to have been barbarians. Even previous archaeological research has treated the Northern Zone as a contact area for exchange rather than a fully developed civilization, Jaang and colleagues argue.
But new work at Shimao is "completely at odds with the traditional view of the region as peripheral," Jaang and colleagues note, as the site was "not only the largest walled settlement of its time in ancient China, but was also among the largest centers in the world." Their evidence is a palace, complete with stepped pyramid, that was built around 2300 BC.
"Each platform of the step pyramid," they write, "was ringed and reinforced by stone buttresses. At the entrance to the stepped pyramid were sophisticated bulwarks whose design suggests that they were intended to provide both defense and highly restricted access." The intricate design of the entire complex, which included residential structures, suggests this was where the ruling Shimao elite lived as well as where pottery and bronze artifact production was accomplished.
The pyramid was at least 70 meters tall, which meant it could be seen from anywhere in the local area. Jaang and colleagues hypothesize that "it could well have provided a constant and overwhelming reminder to the Shimao population of the power of the ruling elites residing atop it -- a concrete example of the 'social pyramid.'"
Feature of Shimao construction: a sacrificial pit of human skulls (after Sun & Shao 2016a: fig. 3).ANTIQUITY / JAANG ET AL. / 2018
Thousands of jade objects, such as axes and scepters, have been found during excavations at Shimao, and the researchers speculate that many more are yet to be found. More interestingly, human sacrifice on a massive scale is another feature of this site. "In the outer gateway of the eastern gate on the outer rampart alone," the archaeologists explain, "six pits containing decapitated human heads have been found." Both the jade objects and the human sacrifices -- all of young women -- likely imbued Shimao with ritual and religious potency, they conclude.
Further, the researchers note that Shimao was the center of a densely settled polity. If the pottery style at Shimao represents the ruling elite, then it is also clear that those elite ruled an area of at least 16,000 square miles based on similar pottery found in this massive geographical range. In all, Shimao seems to have been the core of a political area that encompassed more than 4,000 settlements as part of a four-level social hierarchy. The political power of Shimao grew from 2300 to 1900 BC, and it was the economic heartland of an immense exchange network, according to Jaang and colleagues.
Based on the large-scale building construction, imported jade artifacts, human sacrifices, and other archaeological evidence, the researchers say that their findings from Bronze Age Shimao "call into question the traditional text-based narrative in which Chinese civilization supposedly arose on the Central Plains and then spread to other regions." The social complexity inherent in the Shimao site is earlier than the Erlitou Polity in the Central Plains, which dates to 1900-1550 BC and was much smaller geographically than was Shimao.
Jade head from Shimao, in the Shaanxi History MuseumSIYUWJ / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / CC BA-SA 4.0
"The archaeological record reveals that the loess highland, with the Shimao settlement as its hub, was the economic heartland of an extensive network of exchange and trade involving highly valued artifacts, rather than a passive transfer zone between the steppe and the Central Plains as portrayed in the Sinocentric stereotype," they conclude. "The impact of Shimao's legacy on polities in the Central Plains would have been substantial."
It is not clear what happened to Shimao that caused it to be abandoned and fall into ruin. But archaeological excavations are ongoing, so there is hope that researchers will learn more about this intriguing early Chinese civilization soon.