September 1, 2022
BEIJING – Jijiaocheng site slowly reveals clues that shed light on society thousands of years ago, report Xu Lin in Changde, Hunan, and Zhu Youfang in Changsha.
A national comprehensive research program, launched in 2002, to trace the origins of Chinese civilization, has led to the excavations and studies of key sites that are about 3,500 to 5,500 years old. It has revealed a host of secrets about ancient China, including how early civilizations were formed and how they merged to create unity in diversity. China Daily speaks to experts working at these sites to decode their recent discoveries.
Jijiaocheng is an archaeological site that hit the headlines in March when it was named among China’s top 10 new discoveries of 2021. Located in Lixian county, Changde city, Central China’s Hunan province, it’s recorded in local annals that Jijiaocheng, which literally means “cock-crowing city”, got its name because it is said to have been built at the very dawn of time.
Dating back to between 5,300 and 4,000 years, Jijiaocheng may have not “crowed” over thousands of years, but when it did, it startled everyone.
A classic case among Neolithic sites, it presents a unique civilization of the middle reaches of the Yangtze River that thrived on rice agriculture.
The archaeological discoveries are significant and reveal a three-layer moat near settlement clusters, vast areas of irrigated paddy fields and a large-scale wooden complex.The site was discovered in 1975, and excavations started in the 1990s. Between 2018 and last year, the Hunan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and the School of Archaeology and Museology of Sichuan University carried out continuous field archaeology, with an excavation area of 1,850 square meters, including 800 sq m in 2021.
Jijiaocheng is expected to reveal more of its secrets to archaeologists who all seem to have a keen sense of anticipation.
“There is an evidence chain to prove that it’s a civilization of an early-stage state based on rice agriculture,” says Guo Weimin, who’s in charge of Jijiaocheng’s excavation project.
Guo, who used to be head of Hunan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, is a professor at the Department of Archaeology of Yuelu Academy, Hunan University.
He says the complicated moat system, which dates back between 4,000 and 5,000 years, reflects the high level of rice agriculture at that time. Parallel canals were found on the fringe of the moat, and their function was to irrigate the rice fields.
Today, the well-preserved moat system can be clearly seen in aerial photos, and he says that “it’s very rare among its counterparts in China”.
“Compared with China’s Liangzhu and Hongshan cultures, Jijiaocheng is less religious. However, it is more religious than its counterparts in the Central China Plains. It is probably somewhere in between a theocracy and monarchy,” Guo says.
He believes that Jijiaocheng shows no obvious traces of war, which is different from the Central China Plains.
“At Jijiaocheng, the ancients were self-sufficient in food production. It’s probable that they had no awareness or need to snatch resources from others,” he says.
Archaeologists found a pile of chaff covering an area of 80 sq m, with an average depth of 15 centimeters. It’s estimated to be from unprocessed rice weighing about 22 metric tons, enough to feed 1,000 adults for over 40 days.
“This is only what we discovered. The original storage must have been huge. It reveals the centralized management and redistribution of grain in Jijiaocheng, meaning that the society was highly developed,” he says.A prehistoric mansion
Guo says among a group of excavated wooden structures is F63(referring to “No 63 house ruins”), the largest and most well-preserved prehistoric edifice of its type discovered in Chinese archaeology.
The 4,700-year-old house has a floor area of 420 sq m, with an extra 210 sq m of corridors. F63 was made of nanmu and camphor trees, which are resilient to warping and cracking.
Before the construction of the building, planks were placed on foundation trenches and columns, 55 cm in diameter, were installed.
He says that, even without metal tools, using just implements made from stone and wood, the people of that time were able to produce smooth wooden planks between five and eight meters long.
“It’s unlikely a house for daily living. It’s more likely to be a place for a ritual or large public activities, revealing that Jijiaocheng was a hierarchical society,” he says.
A team, led by Xu Yitao, a professor from the School of Archaeology and Museology of Peking University, simulated four different versions of how F63 might have looked, based on the discoveries of the foundations and upright columns, and their research on pile dwellings.
As Guangming Daily reported, Lin Liugen, a professor at the School of Art and Archaeology of Zhejiang University, said that “the discovery of F63 was unprecedented in Chinese archaeology history”.
He concludes that the society of the time had an efficient management of labor, manual work and resources.
Guo says: “We’re lucky to discover such important remains at the beginning of Jijiaocheng’s archaeology work.” He adds that work will continue for some time.
He looks forward to further discoveries that will uncover more facts about the site and those who lived there. For example, large-scale tombs and organic material, which could possibly be found in the moat, could shed further light on the history of the site. Experts are particularly curious about the site’s layout, such as locations of residences and workshops.
Cao Yi, deputy head of Lixian county’s culture, tourism, radio, television and sports bureau, says that further research will be done on a network of about 50 historical sites within 10 square kilometers around Jijiaocheng, to figure out their relationship.A bigger picture
With an area of about 700 sq km, Liyang Plain boasts more than 700 prehistoric sites, including Jijiaocheng and Chengtoushan, which are separated by a distance of just 13 km.
Archaeologists believe that communities and individuals from the two sites were in some form of basic communication, but more evidence is needed to see how far this had developed.
With mountains on three sides, the east of Liyang Plain faces Dongting Lake, China’s second-largest freshwater lake.
Guo says that the plain attracted settlers between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago, because of its location and good environment, which is suitable for growing crops, and ample resources.
“From the Paleolithic Age to Neolithic Age, Liyang Plain saw a continuous development, nurturing early human civilization,” Guo says.
Experts also believe that the two places had cultural communications with the nearby Shijiahe site in Tianmen, Hubei province.
At Chengtoushan, animal-shaped pottery, similar to that in Shijiahe, was unearthed.
“There were many settlement clusters along the middle reaches of the Yangtze River at that time, but we have no idea whether they were a loose alliance or under the rule of one city,” he says.
Guo believes it’s important to bring the Jijiaocheng site “to life “to promote ancient culture among the public and boost the local economy.
He suggests that the authorities make a comprehensive arrangement regarding the Liyang Plain, including Jijiaocheng, to combine the area with rural revitalization and tourism development efforts.
A national research program was established in 2002 to trace the origins of Chinese civilization.
The project’s significance, Guo says, is that experts were able to set China’s own standards to define a civilized city, such as social division of labor.
“Chinese civilization is about being inclusive, seeking common ground while reserving differences and pursuing harmony without uniformity,” Guo says.
“Through a dynamic process, different cultures of China have been interacting with each other, forming the diverse but integrated Chinese civilization.”
He says at Jijiaocheng and Chengtoushan, the ancients planted the seeds and irrigated the paddy fields, proving that Chinese civilization is an agricultural one that is deeply rooted in the soil. It’s unlike Western civilization, he says, which is based on oceans and trade.
Feng Zhiwei contributed to this story.