Ancient Tombs

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In China, as elsewhere, the earlier the period the more important archaeological evidence is to our understanding of what life was like.  For periods before writing, surviving artifacts offer a crucial corrective to legend and myth.  Moreover, even after writing was invented, for many centuries the types of texts that survive are very limited, so that there is still a great deal to learn from artifacts.  Scientifically excavated objects can be placed more accurately in time and place than early texts, which often went through a process of accretion over time, with many passages added later.

Thousands of early archaeological sites have been excavated in China, most of them graves.  Learning from this archaeological evidence is at least as difficult as learning from texts.  The objects are silent--we must ask questions of them before they can tell us anything.

This unit contains summaries of five archaeological sites, ranging in date from about 2300 BC to 100 BC.  The tombs selected for examination were all advanced for their time.  Their occupants were members of the ruling class of the period, able to afford the highest standard of material comfort, technical excellence, and artistic embellishment then available.

Think about the following issues as you examine each tomb:

What can you learn about the occupant of the grave from the goods buried with him or her?
Why do you think certain types of objects were selected to be put in graves?  How does this change or stay the same from tomb to tomb? 
What can you infer from these graves about attitudes toward death and the afterlife?  How do these attitudes change over time?
How do the objects in these five tombs reveal changes in stylistic preference?  How about media and technique?
Do you see evidence of technological advances in either the construction or the contents of the tombs?
What are some of the advantages and some of the limitations of what you can learn from the archaeological evidence presented in these five sites?

Click to see a map showing the
locations of these five tombs





2300 BC

 Neolithic tomb at Dawenkou

1200 BC

Shang tomb of Fu Hao

1000 BC

Western Zhou tomb of the Count of Yu

433 BC

Eastern Zhou tomb of the Marquis Yi

113 BC

Han tomb of Liu Sheng