5,000-year-old palace marks birth of Chinese civilization

Archaeologists have excavated the Nanzuo heritage site in Qingyang on China’s Loess Plateau in Gansu Province. Dating from 4,600 to 5,200 years ago, according to China Daily the Nanzuo site was found in an area that represents one of the “largest known human settlement complexes of its time”, covering 600 hectares.

Last Wednesday, Han Jianye, a professor at Renmin University of China who is leading the excavations, attended an online conference organized by the National Administration of Cultural Heritage . The archaeologist told Chinese authorities that the site offers key physical evidence “of the central role of the middle course of the Yellow River in the birth of Chinese civilization”.

The Nanzuo site in Qingyang, Gansu province (northwest China). ( National Cultural Heritage Administration of China )

Explore the origins of Chinese civilization

The Nanzuo site was first identified in 1958 and previous excavations were undertaken at the site in the 1980s and 1990s. Radiocarbon organic materials dated between 4,600 and 5,200 years old. The site was built at the end of the Yangshao culture period, which dates back 5,000 to 7,000 years in northern China. However, Prof Han said recent excavations focused on an area of ​​around 30 hectares (74.13 acres), surrounded by three layers of extensive defensive moats.

An 880 square meter (9472.24 sq ft) terrace was excavated at the site earlier this year. The discovery of nine adobe foundations, with a square center of 630 square meters (6,781.26 sq ft), suggested that the site may have been a royal palace with an elaborate defensive system. The palace constructions and the defensive system are described as being of “extraordinary size”. If that’s what the structures were, then the find represents “strong public power, indicating that this region has entered an era of civilization,” Han said.

A humanoid sculpture discovered at the Nanzuo site in 1984. (Qingyang Municipal Bureau of Culture, Sports, Radio, Film and Tourism)

A humanoid sculpture discovered at the Nanzuo site in 1984. ( Qingyang Municipal Bureau of Culture, Sports, Radio, Film and Tourism )

Dawn of Civilization Artifacts

Among the thousands of artifacts collected from the site, archaeologists have discovered a huge amount of painted pottery, including a decorated clay pot 74 cm high (29.13 inches). Samples of burnt rice informed researchers about the development of agriculture in the region. And a collection of stone and bone arrows dyed red testify to the ritual traditions of the later Zhou dynasty (c. 11th century – 256 BC). Han said that the Zhou kings gave the rulers of vassal states red arrows.

A painted clay jar discovered this year at the Nanzuo site.  (CHINA DAILY)

A painted clay jar discovered this year at the Nanzuo site. ( EVERYDAY CHINA )

Zhang Chi, a professor of archeology at Peking University, said the newly excavated buildings, as well as those still unknown, could represent an architectural ensemble “whose scale is beyond our imagination”. And if more ruins between 4,600 and 5,200 years old are discovered, Chi believes the site deserves to be declared a World Heritage Site.

Rethinking China’s Ancient Origins

Li Xinwei is a researcher at the Institute of Archeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. China Daily reported that Xinwei said that if the Yangshao cultural center was in today’s central Chinese provinces, archaeological findings determine that the eastern part of present-day Gansu province was probably one of its origins. Nanzuo indicates that at the end of the Yangshao culture period, its people returned to their homeland.

In conclusion, the site represents “a type of civilization” that influenced the appearance of large cities at the end of the period in northwestern China, such as Shimao. Dated to 2000 BC Shimao is a 400 ha (988.42 acres) Neolithic site in Shenmu County, Shaanxi, China, and the largest known fortified site from this period in China. Along with Shimao, Nanzuo forces historians to rethink the beginnings of Chinese civilization, but the missing links between them remain elusive, Li said.

Top image: The Nanzuo site in Qingyang, Gansu province (northwest China). ( National Cultural Heritage Administration of China ) Insert: A painted clay jar discovered this year at the Nanzuo site. ( EVERYDAY CHINA )

By Ashley Cowie