To Neolithic China and back! The Yangshao project.

This article was orginally published in Benbiten (Bone fragment) number 1-2, 2007, the (Swedish) Osteological association’s periodical. Stockholm.Sweden.

More information on the Yangshaoproject is availible on the blog Yangshao projektet (most post are in Swedish though some are in English)

To Neolithic China and back! The Yangshao project.

Magnus Reuterdahl

In 1921 Johan Gunnar Andersson excavated the settlement at Yangshao cun and found the first traces of the Chinese neolithic. Some of the finds became the foundation of the collections at the Museum of Far East antiquities in Stockholm. One of the finest collections of Yangshao artifacts outside of China.


The initial steps in forming the Yangshao-project started in 2003 by myself and fellow student Johan Klange. In 2003 the department of Archaeology, Stockholm University (SU), was visited by a delegation from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Archaeological institute. The visitors were Mr. Liu Qingzhu, Dr. Yuan Jing and Dr. Chen Xingcan. At this time an exchange program between CASS and SU became known to us and with the help and support from associate professor Ingmar Jansson of the Department of Archaeology and Classical studies at SU and Dr. Jan Storå, at the Osteoarchaeological Research Laboratory (OFL) at the same department we created a research plan and an application for the exchange. During this period and forth we also have had a lot of help from Tom Morell, international liaison at the Research Liaison Office, SU.

     All in all this led to the possibility for Johan Klange and me to participate in an exchange during January 2006 between the CASS and SU. During this exchange we visited the Archaeological Institute at CASS and its archaeological laboratory in Beijing, among others, to do research on the Neolithic Yangshao culture (Klange & Reuterdahl 2006). This article is the first regarding our project and the research that we have made, Johan Klange is currently working on another that is more focused on other issues than bones, among them long distance cultural exchange of ideas and the ritual landscape.

     The Yangshao culture was selected for several reasons. Partly we had some previous knowledge about the culture and partly due to the fact that there are clear connections to Sweden through the collections at the museum of Far East antiquities and researchers such as Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874-1960), Folke Bergman (1902-1946), and Sven Hedin (1865-1952) among others.

Questions and aims

In 2003/2004 we started out by doing a background study on the Yangshao-culture to find articles and books concerning research about the Yangshao culture. The result became a background essay called “Mystic Pottery and Cosmic Eggs – a study of two aspects of the Yangshao culture for a better understanding of its conceptual philosophy” (Klange & Reuterdahl 2005). With this as a base we worked out a research plan.

     In our research plan we described our aims and goals with the exchange. Among other things we stressed that we hoped to gain more knowledge about the prehistory of China, in particular knowledge about the Yangshao culture and to share this knowledge with others. To do so we hope to create a base for an enlarged understanding and strengthened interest of Chinese archaeology at our department among professors, researchers, students and others that are interested. We also pointed out several questions that we were interested to gain knowledge about. Among these questions some had a more Osteoarchaeological approach, for example:

1.                                      We identified in Johan Gunnar Anderssons published works that a find of deposited fossilized ostrich eggs had been done at the settlement Yangshao cun (Andersson 1923:57ff.,1943:65). Are there any more find of fossilized eggs on Yangshao sites and if so how are they interpreted?

2.                                      We found a study of the correlation between the deposits of animal bones and the iconography of the painted vessels intresting. What materials are available and in what contexts are bones and painted pottery found?

3.                                      The Yangshao-culture has been interpreted as a matriarchal society, partly due to finds in the cemeteries. What is the sexing based upon? Osteology, artifacts or a combination thereof? What genders is considered?

4.                                      Another important question is how and with what questions are Chinese Zooarchaeologists currently working on in China?

Some notes on Chinese Archaeology

In a paper there is virtually no possibility to describe the field of Chinese archaeology, this is but a few notes designed to present a background. In Asia there is a rich source of comparative material on the origins of agriculture to state formation. There are many links between Asia, the Middle East and Europe which make Asian archaeology relevant to World archaeology (Stark 2006:5). The keyword in understanding Asia’s archaeology is diversity: in climate, geography, language, genetics, and the variety of social formations (Stark 2006:12f). Asian archaeology is famous for many things among them some “firsts” as some of the earliest domesticated plants and pottery technologies (Stark 2006:4). The study of domestication is fundamental to agricultural origins but it is also a “clear and dominant feature of the conceptual landscape between hunting-gathering and agricultural” (Smith 2001:27). The Oldest substantial records of potential agriculture in North China are from ca. 9-8000 B.C. (Crawford 2006:77). For example the earliest evidence for domesticated dogs is reported for the site of Nanzhuangtou, located in central Hebei province, in the northern part of the central Yellow river valley dated to ca. 8000 B.C. (Yuan & Flad 2002:728 tbl.1). On the same site some of the oldest pottery in North China has been found, the pottery has been dated to 9000-8000 B.C. (Crawford 2006:85).

     There are those how judge Asian archaeology as theoretically limited in comparison with Western archaeological ideas. In China this is especially clear due to the, until recently, employed Marxist evolutionary framework (Stark 2006:6).  There are two themes that can be identified as most common in Chinese archaeology, if looking back. The first is that history is the struggle of classes; this has led to the periodization of Chinese history into primitive society, slave society, feudal society, and so forth. The second theme is that Chinas history is rich in accomplishments, particularly in inventions and in art, which illustrate the creative powers of the Chinese people (Chang 1977:625). In more recent Chinese research there is a visible change towards input from other ideas and questions. One of the important issues in contemporary Chinese archaeology as well in world archaeology is the question of the emergence of state in ancient China (Liu et al 2002:75). It is also notable that in articles from recent years that Marxist doctrine is gradually fading away (Liu 2004:11f).

     Between 1949-1979 China was deeply centralized and governed under a distinctive form of Marxist ideology and administrative structures (Glover 2006:19). During the period from 1949-59 Chinese archaeology followed ideas and practises from USSR. After Chinas ideological break (New China) with the USSR in 1959 archaeology in China was dominated by the directives of Mao Zedong. The Chinese government did encourage archaeology to the extent that it showed the emergence of a unique Chinese society (Glover 2006:19). The Cultural revolution, 1966-76, brought most archaeological work to a standstill with enormous destruction to museums, sites and collections through the “Four Olds” campaign (Glover 2006:19). The main emphasis in Chinese archaeology during a fairly long period after the establishment of New China remained the determination of the chronology of Chinese archaeological cultures, and the delineation of differences and similarities between the types of archaeological cultures of each area (Yuan 2006:207).

     Evan though there have been an acceleration in Asian archaeology since the 1960s the results remain largely inaccessible to western scholars, mainly because of linguistic reasons (Stark 2006:4f). Many sites are known for their spectacular and huge quantity of finds, for example the Yangshao sites Banpo and Jiangzhai among many others. A problem with many of these excavations is the documentation, not just linguistically. The finds were foremost used to demonstrate the truth of well-accepted doctrines, such as unilineal evolution, class struggle in ancient society, the inevitable demise of capitalism and the unique originality of Chinese society (Glover 2006:19). Another problem is the lack of consistent stratigraphical documentation (Yuan & Flad 2002:724). One must also bear in mind that most archaeological fieldwork has taken place in the eastern half of China (Underhill & Habu 2006:122).

     A new trend in Chinese archaeology is the search for new frameworks with indigenous characteristics, in order to constitute a Chinese-style archaeology. A new concept that has gained  popularity is, gucheng guguo guwenhua shidai – the period of archaic towns, archaic states, and archaic culture (Liu 2004:11f). Another research strategy, which has resulted from the emphasis on regional cultural development (quxi-leixing), is to trace the origins of civilization in each region to an earlier time than was traditionally thought (Liu 2004:12). Li describes that the two methods suffer from a major deficiency – the conceptual confusion between civilization and state.

     The prehistoric cultures that developed in China from ca. 8000 to 2000 B.C. are traditionally described as “Neolithic,” (Underhill & Habu 2006:122). By the term “Neolithic,” archaeologists in China refer to settlements from the Holocene with the presence of one or more key traits such as pottery, ground stone tools, sedentism, cultivation and animal husbandry (Underhill 1997:105). The neolithic period is often dived into four phases, the initial Neolithic period (ca. 9000-7000 B.C.), the early Neolithic period (ca. 7000-5000 B.C.), the middle Neolithic period (ca. 5000-3000 B.C.) and the late Neolithic period (ca. 3000-2000 B.C.) (Liu 2004:24ff). There are more Neolithic sites known in China then in the rest of the world (Maisels 1999:273). Since 1949 more than 7,000 Neolithic sites have been discovered and more than 400 of them excavated, the most intensive work having been carried out in the Yellow river valley (An 1988:754). About 800 Yangshao sites have been discovered in Henan, and about 2,000 sites in Shaanxi (Liu 2004:25f). Relatively few sites have been properly studied or published (Maisels 1999:273). Another problem when confronted with the multitude of settlements is that there is not a corpus for qualified demographic studies. This is partly to do with the fact that the published figures of site numbers and size are derived from unsystematic surveys (Liu 2002:78). Many smaller sites are often overlooked and the scale of chronology is often poor. In cases where sites that date to a long period of time as the Yangshao culture (ca 2000 yrs) are displayed it is likely that settlements aren’t contemporary and therefore the site distribution does not represent the settlement pattern (Liu et al 2002:79). A full covering regional study where both size and dating is represented is therefore of interest to better understand the development of the Yangshao culture.

     Within the central Yellow valley there are several cultures that coexist and shows several similarities with the Yangshao culture for example the Dawenkou culture in the lower part of the Huange He valley (Underhill & Habu 2006:122). Others predate the Yangshao culture such as the Peiligang culture (ca. 7000-5000 B.C.) of central Henan, the Cishan culture of southern Hebei, and the Dadiwan culture of the Weihe River valley in Shaanxi and Gansu (ca. 6000-5400 B.C.). The Yangshao culture retains elements of these cultures in settlement distribution, architecture, burial customs, agricultural production, stone tool and pottery making etc. (An 1988:754).

Chinese Zooarchaeology & Osteology

The study of faunal remains has generally been neglected in Chinese archaeology (Ma 2005:4). Establishment of a time-space framework was the major focus within Chinese archaeology for a long time and since faunal remains in general could not contribute to building this framework analysis was not incorporated into general archaeology (Ma 2005:5).

     The earliest zooarchaeological steps in China were taken in 1930’s. Among the earliest are De Rijin and Yang Zhongjian who researched the mammalian fauna at Anyang (Teilhard de Chardin & Young 1936). Yuan Jing divides the Chinese zooarchaeological development into two major periods from the development of New China in the 1950’s and fourth (2002:206ff): The initial period is characterized by:

  • Species identification
  • Conjectures regarding ancient environments, animals and certain human behaviour.
  • Animal bones was not collected or analysed from every site.
  • The researchers did not have a unified concept of their research objectives.

During this time the excavated animal remains did not receive the attention they deserved (Yuan 2006:208).

     In the 1980’s a “formative” period begun, one of the most important researchers was Qi Guoqin who after several years of zooarchaeological research in USA introduced new methodology in China, for example the MNI (minimum number of individuals) calculation, and treatment of statistical data (Yuan 2002:208). The formative period is characterized by (Yuan 2006:210):

  • The aims and methods of current world Zooarchaeology are introduced to China.
  • The number of researchers is increasing.
  • There is no longer any universal agreement regarding the objectives, theory or method.

Through this both the quantity and quality of zooarchaeological research has increased in China. Yuan Jing points towards the achievements that Chinese Zooarchaeology has made, such as getting knowledge about what animals are present in each of the cultures of the neolithic period in China, research regarding domesticated animals in both south and north China, discoveries regarding the changes of climate and environment during the ancient times and studies of bone tool production techniques (Yuan 2002:210). Dr. Yuan Jing does underline that Chinese zooarchaeology has developed in a comparatively isolated environment and therefore has its flaws (Yuan 2002:211). But Yuan also mentions international cooperation and academic exchange, such as the 1992 Chinese-American archaeological field school with participants such as Dr. Diane Gifford-Gonzales (Yuan 2002.209). During the visit in January 2006 Dr. Yuan Jing showed one of his latest projects, the creation of a Chinese osteological atlas regarding the prehistoric fauna in China, which besides being an important tool in Chinese zooarchaeology probably will be an important instrument for foreign researchers.

     Dr. Yuan Jing describes Chines zooarchaeology, as yet, in its capacity as rather weak when compared to zooarchaeology elsewhere in the world. There are shortcomings and some blank spots that regard theory, method, and concrete practice (Yuan 2002:205ff). But he also shows that there is progress and a will to continually improve the zooarchaeological research in China. Ma Xiaolin is another Chinese zooarchaeologist; his studies concern that of the faunal remains and he has mainly focused on taxonomic identification (Ma 2005).  He describes several problems concerning the faunal remains found at excavations. Most have been recovered without zooarchaeologists participation, animal bones have been selected arbitrarily, more often than not the faunal remains haven’t been given a contexts and most collecting methods favoured larger species and elements and ignored small animals and bone fragments (Ma 2005:5). Although hundreds of Neolithic sites have been excavated in the middle Yellow river valley, faunal samples from only thirteen sites have been reported (Ma 2005:5).

     In Chinese archaeology regarding the Neolithic the osteological analysis on humans seems to primarily have dealt with age structures and sexing. Regarding human osteology there are a few articles published in English for example Mary Jackes & Gao Qiang (1994) and Mary Jackes (2004). Jackes research showcases results that could be a base for a smaller research project, e.g. to verify or falsify the results. Her research shows some of the problems a student or researcher is likely to face when working with Chinese materials. It also brings light to the importance of participating in Chinese excavations for a better understanding of the strategic decisions while excavating. The research concerns the human skeletons from the Jiangzhai settlement in the Shaanxi province, excavated in the 1970’s. Nearly 3000 skeletons were found (Jackes 2004:29); these were examined on site by a Chinese anatomist, Xia Yuan-Ming (Jackes 2004:30). The notes show that 64 % of the individuals were female (Jackes 2004:23). Most of the skeletons were reburied on site; only parts of 54 individuals are retained at the Banpo Museum in Xi’an (Jackes 2004:30). According to Jackes research the retained material from Jiangzhai presents an extraordinarily large assortment of trauma that could be attributed to violence (2004:31). For example, there are seven observable sets of adolescent and adult female nasal bones of which three had their noses broken. On the upper limbs there are a 100 % representation of left side fractures of the arms, allowing the reasonable speculation that fighting was undertaken with a weapon held in the right hand (Jackes 2004:32). Despite the poor and probably unrepresentative sample she concludes that this might be evidence of aggression and therefore indicates violence (Jackes 2004:32f). Other types of trauma found is on the female vertebrae that seem to be the result of constant stress of the type that suggests sustained labour in the fields. This should be put in conjunction with the males that by contrast show no comparable vertebral trauma (Jackes 2004:32), this indicate that the theory of a matriarchal society is faulty. Another interesting notion is the caries rate that is low according to the traditional view of a Neolithic population for example; there was only a 7 % caries rate in the lower molars in Jiangzhai (Jackes & Gao 1994:4).

Map Neollithic China

Fig.1 Map over central Chinas provinces.

Some notes on the Yangshao Culture

The Neolithic Yangshao culture (ca 5100-3000 B.C.) is spread over an area alongside the Yellow river covering areas in both modern China and Inner Mongolia within the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, southern Hebei, the western half of Henan, the eastern half of Gansu and the eastern portion of Qinghai (Barnes 1999:103). The Yangshao culture is normally divided into three stages, early (ca 5100-3700 B.C.), middle (ca. 4000-3500) and late (ca. 3500-3000 B.C.) (Liu 2004). The village-sites are densely distributed along the riverbanks the Yellow river and the Wei and Fen Rivers (Barnes 1999:103). The archaeological records show complex villages and great amounts of ceramics. The Yangshao settlements in Gansu and Qinghai is sometimes called the “western” Yangshao culture as these differs from those in the central area; they are somewhat younger dating to approximately 3500-1000 B.C. and among the finds in these sites are low-technical metal implements (Maisels 1999:273). The term “culture” can be discussed, perhaps it is more relevant to speak of the Yangshao period instead of culture due to the great time span, the geographical area and the differences in artefacts, iconography etc. (see Li 2004:1ff, Ma 2005:3).

     In 1921 Johan Gunnar Andersson began to excavate the settlement at Yangshao cun, about 120 km west from Louyang City (Andersson 1923a:509). The site is approximately 600 x 480 meter and the cultural lawyers are up to five meters deep (Andersson 1923b:19). During the excavation, several “celler-pits” (storage pits) were discovered and vast amounts of both unpainted and painted ceramics. On many of the ceramic shards string and cloth patterns are visible (Andersson 1923b:27). Part of the pottery is made on pottery wheels (Andersson 1923a:512). A large number of stone axes of varied types and sizes were also found. There were also a large number of artefacts made out of bone and horn, for example sewing needles, awls, arrow points and fragments of what was interpret as axes made out of deer antlers (Andersson 1923a:512). The human remains found in the graves were analyzed by Dr. Davidsson Black, professor at the Beijing Union Medical Collage (Andersson 1923b:512).

     The settlement patterns, the settlement size and the house construction changes over time. Most sites from the early Yangshao phase range in size from ca. three to six hectares. An exception to this is the Jiangzhai site which covers ca. 18 ha. The houses in the early Yangshao phase settlements contain a variety of house styles, usually semi-subterranean. During later phases ground-level-houses becomes more common (Underhill & Habu 2006:128). There is a significant differentiation between the early and the middle phase and from the middle to the late phase in the size of Yangshao settlements. The sites size during the middle phase ranges from less than one hectare to over 90 hectares. Several social, economic, and ideological factors may have motivated people to establish larger, denser settlements and new forms of political organization. During the later phase new kinds of architectural structures are found, at the Xishan settlement near the modern city of Zhengzhou, archaeologists discovered a settlement surrounded by a wall of rammed earth instead of a trench (Underhill & Habu 2006:131f). There seems to be a reduction in numbers of sites during the late phase when compeered with the middle phase (Ma 2005:22). A unique discovery in 1986 in the Late Yangshao settlement of Dadiwan, Gansu province shows paintings made with black pigment of human and animal figures on what seems to be a house floor (Pearson & Underhill 1987:812[1]).

Layout of the Jiangzhai settlement

Fig 2. Layout of the Jiangzhai settlement (Shi 2001:62)

     The village of Jiangzhai, just outside Xi’an in the Shaanxi province, is one of the few Yangshao settlements that are fully excavated. It is an example of a site situated on loess-earth. The settlement area, covers circa two hectares and is enclosed by a wide trench or ditch. Within the enclosure, pit buildings of different shape and size are found round a central circled square. The buildings are divided into five concentrations, within each of the concentrations there are several smaller buildings arranged round a larger one, see fig 2. Outside the enclosure there are ceramic kilns and a burial ground (Barnes 1999:101f). Estimations regarding the population suggests that a village with the residential density of Jiangzhai village was about 285 persons/ha, which makes Jiangzhai one of the most densely occupied prehistoric villages of which we are aware (Peterson 2006:74).

     Another famous site is Banpo, located in Xi’an in the Shaanxi province. It was found in the 1950’s and the excavations were made during 1954-1957. It is a characteristic of the North China mid-Neolithic (ca 4500 – 3750 B.C.). The settlement covers an area of over 50000 square meters of which ca. 10000 have been excavated. Among the finds are 45 houses, 200 storage pits, six kilns and over 250 tombs (Banpo Museum 1995:7). Yangshao villages seems to have normally contained 50-100 houses, about 20-30 square meters in size (Maisels 1999:282). The Yangshao settlement Banpo was surrounded by a trench, five to six meters wide and about as deep. Food reserves were stored in large pits sometimes up to two meters deep. Some structures appear to be animal pens, interpreted by the numerous bones of pig found in them (Crawford 2006:83). Both sites are in the vicinity of Xi’an in the Shaanxi province.

     The settlement Xi’po is of special interest to us, partly due to the fact that two the archaeologist/zooarchaeologist we keep in contact with, Dr. Li Xinwei and Dr. Ma Xaolin, are currently working on this project but also because of the exiting results. The site was known to us partly through Anders Kaliff and RAA and partly from the possibilities for a joint archaeological venture at Xi’po between “Svenska Arkeologiska Samfundet” (The Swedish Archaeological Society) and CASS (Ringstedt 2005:6). Xi’po is a 40 hectares large settlement dated to the middle Yangshao Culture. It is surrounded by two trenches, each more than 200 meters long, 20 meters wide and up to six meters deep. Excavations have been conducted since the winter of 2000. During the excavations the archaeologists have found four house foundations, three cisterns and 88 ash-pits (Ma 2005:29). Two large semi-subterranean houses are especially interesting. The architectural elements have been studied and giving interesting results regarding the complexity of the buildings. The houses are built in several different techniques and different sorts of clay has been used. The walls of the semi-subterranean parts are pasted with fine clay and painted red with cinnabar. The floor of one house is 25.5 cm thick and consists of seven layers of rammed earth and fine clay. The largest house (F105) is regarded as an extremely large building (ca. 204 m²) and may have had a symbolic meaning, for non-utilitarian activates such as ritual or for social activities (feasting) (Ma 2005:43ff). Further the village cemetery was found in 2005 and 22 burials have been excavated, the cemetery is at present the only excavated of the middle Yangshao period. The excavations are planed to continue during the autumn of 2007 or during 2008.

     The earliest settlement with trenches is the Xinglongwa settlement (6,200- 5,400 B.C.) in Inner Mongolia which is partially surrounded by a trench (Crawford 2006:82). The ditch is not as deep or vast as those found in the Yangshao culture, the ditch surrounding Xinglongwa is approximately 0.55-1 m deep and 1.5-2 m wide (Shelach 2000:401) while the trenches surrounding the Yangshao sites can be hundreds of meters in length and more than 20 meters wide and several meters deep (example size see Xi’po). Trenches surrounding settlements can be a trace of evidence to suggest exchange of ideas between different cultures in Northern China. The trenches have been interpreted as suitable for containing animals or protection against floods (Underhill & Habu 2006:127). There are several questions that need a greater research effort regarding these trenches; Are they big enough and are they in the right place to give protection against floods? Where did they place all the earth that was dug out? Is it reasonable to create these great structures for holding animals? The trenches are a phenomena that would be interesting to study from a wide range of perspectives and with different techniques.

     Neolithic burials are a major focus in Chinese archaeology. The research approaches in China have been rather different from those in the West due to the influence of the Morgan-Engels social evolutionary perspective. The interpretations have been based upon a reconstructed general model of social progression. The finds was interpreted to fit a pattern of parallel development, between the shift from matrilineal or matriarchal to patrilineal or patriarchal social organizations, and the evolution from egalitarian to class-based societies (Pearson 1988, Li 2004:117f). Normally the burials are located outside of the enclosed settlement area in what appears to have been shared village cemeteries. In some of these cemeteries there also seems to be is a distinct spatial burials that resembles the clustering of houses within the site. This pattern may symbolize extra-household social institutions such as lineages, where blood ties are traced through males or females, or clans, in which ties are more loosely, reckoned (Underhill & Habu 2006:129, Barnes 1999:104f). In general the female graves are richer endowed than male graves, Chinese archaeologists have interpret this as evidence of a matriarchal society (Barnes 1999:104f). Although the strength of the evidence for a matrilineal/matriarchal society in Neolithic China is considered to be vague, both osteological and DNA evidence contradicts the theory (Liu 2004:11f). Empty graves at the Early Yangshao site of Yuanjunmiao may reflect lineage consciousness (Pearson & Underhill 1987:812) as the empty tombs may reflect upon  the idea that the monument or the ritual is important for the dead (the forefather) to be part of the society and/or be able to pass into the afterlife. Early and middle Yangshao period sites contain three kinds of graves: single graves, multiple graves, and ceramic urns with infants and small children near houses. There are also both primary and secondary burials (Underhill & Habu 2006:129). The need to investigate the differences has also been identified by others (see Liu 2000, Underhill & Habu 2006). One burial that stands out as unique was found at the site of Xishuipo (ca. 3700-3500 B.C.) in northeastern Henan. In the grave an adult male was flanked by life-sized tiger and a dragon, intricately shaped images made from clam shells. In the grave another three individuals were buried (Underhill & Hanu 2006:131). The burial has been interpreted as a grave for a wu shaman (Liu 2004:155). The excavation of the Liuwan cemetery in Gansu province in the mid to late 1970’s shows the mortuary practices of the Machang and Banshan phases. There are both single and multiple burials and the use of wooden coffins. There are however differences between the phases such as size and construction techniques (Allard 2001:16).

painted pottery motive

 Fig. 3 Motive on painted pottery motive on a ceramic vessel found at Banpo. Photo: Magnus Reuterdahl.

     The Yangshao culture is perhaps most famous for its painted vessels. They are very beautiful and part of the largest artefact category; ceramics. This category of painted pottery is however quite scares within the artifact group in total (Barnes 1999:98). The commonest forms of ceramics are open dishes, bowls, tall jars and globular vessels with necks (Clark 1977:295). Changes in the painted designs are used to give a chronological frame, both within each village and within the culture as a whole. In the Yangshao culture the oldest painted pottery is found at the Banpo site, it bears angular geometric or naturalistic designs (Barnes 1999:98). The paintings with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic designs from Banpo are notable for its emphasized realism (Kashina 1977:156). The design of the painted pottery changes over time and each group has been named after the site where it has been found, for example: Miaodigou (3,900-2,780 B.C., excavated 1956 -1957), Dahecun (ca. 3000 BP excavated 1964-1972), Majiayao (3100 B.C. – 1500 B.C. excavated in 1924), Banshan (2500-2200 B.C. excavated in the 70’s) and Machang (3000-2500 B.C. excavated in the 70’s) (Barnes 1999:98).The painting, the firing of vessels in kilns and the production of ceramics on pottery wheels shows a society with specialized crafts and knowledge (Barker 2006:199). A common naturalistic motive is fish; which shows us that the fish most likely had a special meaning both for subsistence and ritual (Barnes 1999:98). Another interesting find category are figurines, there are several finds of human and animal figurines and reliefs. They vary greatly in style and craftsmanship which suggests that they were made by individuals for specific occasions (Liu 2004:88ff). Many articles emphasise on fish as an important source of food but little research seems to have been done. During our visit to China we visited a few museums among them, the Banpo museum, the Historic museum in Xi’an, the Historic museum in Zhengzhou and the museum at the Yangshao site Dahecun. The collections gave many proofs to the importance of fish, for example fishhooks and harpoons made of bone and painted pottery with designs of fishermen and fishnets.

painted pottery Banpo

Fig.4 Different fishes found on painted pottery in Banpo. Photo: Magnus Reuterdahl.

     The pig was one of the earliest domesticated animals in China and was the most important species in subsequent agricultural societies in China (Yuan & Flad 2002:727). Other evidence to the importance of pig are the faunal assemblages found at Xi’po (middle Yangshao culture) that show patterns indicating that a large number of pigs were slaughtered, and a large part of them were consumed near the deposit areas, this suggest the possibility of feasting (Ma 2005).  Other commonly domesticated animal remains found are these of chicken and dog, there are also finds that indicate that water buffalo, cattle, sheep and goat were kept in small numbers (Barker 2006:199, Ma 2005, Yuan & Flad 2002: 728f Table 1). Among wild game deer seems to be the most usual (Yuan & Flad 2002: 728f Table 1). The dog skeletons found at the Xiawanggang site in Henan province shows that there are at least two types of dogs during the Neolithic, suggested by the stop size, even though both were small according to the Hasebe’s classification (Shigehra et al 1998:12). Few animal bones appear in the graves but when they do its most often bones from pigs. Seung-Og Kim puts forward the idea that pigs might have been so important that they besides the important part of the human diet also might play an important role in ritual and in access to the political hegemony at the beginning of complex societies such as the Yangshao (Kim 1994:119).

     In North China, the material cultural diversity of the Yangshao and Dawenkou cultures is superseded by the Late Neolithic Longshan culture ca. 2500 B.C. Longshan is generally viewed as ancestral to state societies in North China and was well on the way to having a form of centralized authority (Crawford 2006:89).

The 2006 exchange 

     In our research plan we stated what we wanted to see and were we wanted to travel in China, in most parts this was carried out according to our wishes. During our visit we were in Beijing for two and half weeks and we visited the provinces of Henan and Shaanxi. Our main goal with our fieldtrip to the provinces was to see Yangshao-sites and local museums. Even though we got to see a lot of the things we wanted, it became evident that it is crucial to stress what the main purpose is and what type of sites are the reason for the journey.

     As we came to China and met with several archaeologists and osteologists we learned a lot that is we have benefited from. The first week we were invited to two different conferences on Chinese archaeology; CASS archaeological conference 2005 and the 2005 Archaeological Forum in Beijing. These gave us an understanding of the vastness of the materials and the multitudes of sites from different ages that Chinese archaeologists are doing research on. It also gave a better understanding concerning what issues are important in current research in China. Dr. Li Xinwei, our guide and mentor in Beijing, gave us the possibility to interact with a researcher who himself was working on an archaeological project concerning the Yangshao culture, the Xi’po settlement. During the second week we had the pleasure of visiting Dr. Yuan Jings archaeological laboratory in Beijing. He showed and told us about some of the current zooarchaeological research that he was doing and introduced us to other researchers in the archaeological laboratories, within the lab there is not only Osteology but also for example DNA research, Bioarchaeological research and research due to different chemical methods. The laboratory works in many ways as a Swedish one, though there are differences. The bones are of course central, therefore there are comparative bone collections, a library, computers and instruments for measurements (scales, venire callipers etc.). They do have comparative collections but they are not used in the same ways as we do ours. When a material comes to the laboratory for an analysis the identification is all ready made. The analysis seems to concern more specific questions, for example a study of measurements of a specific bone element. What stood out was the amount of material China has to offer its researchers both in animal and human collections. From a rather quick study of the material primarily from pigs and human remains found at Yangshao sites, it is evident that there are great possibilities to study different methods such as osteometric documentation of faunal remains, osteological study of specific markers (pathologies) in the skeleton, osteological study of slaughter patterns on the basis of age structure, investigate depositional patterns of faunal remains in archaeological locations.

     As mentioned earlier we had set up a number of questions. A few of these we have been able to answer others we realised that we need to do more research to be able to answer and others has given us new questions.

1.                                          The find of deposited fossilized ostrich eggs at the settlement Yangshao cun. Johan Gunnar Andersson found a fossilized ostrich egg deposited on the site (Andersson 1943:65). The eggs belonged to the extinct Struthiolothus a species of ostrich that most likely was extinct long before the Neolithic era in China began. In an article J. G. Andersson describes the known egg findings in China (Andersson 1923:57ff.). All eggs but one were whole when found. The egg found at the site Yangshaocun was crushed in situ and was until 1923 the only found at an archaeological site. Our investigation into the matter showed that it still is the only one found at a Neolithic site within the Yangshao-culture and therefore probably is nothing but a curiosity.

2.                                          The aim to study the correlation between the deposits of animal bones and the iconography of the painted vessels. During our visit we had the possibility to study both ceramics and animal bones bur our conclusion are that to get a fruitful answer we need a larger sample, e.g. a study of a complete material from at least a single site. In the iconography there are several animals, some easy spotted others in need of a greater study. There are also questions regarding the strategic decisions made during excavations and analyses e.g. are all bone material collected and in which way are they documented (see Yuan & Flad 2001, Ma 2005).

3.                                          The Yangshao-culture has been interpreted as a matriarchal society, partly due to finds in the cemeteries. We found it interesting to study the correlation between the finds in the graves and the osteological sexing but also to study what is male and female and are there any other genders visible in the graves. Other genders could be for example the children buried in the cemeteries contra those buried in clay vessel within the settlement area.

4.                                          Another aim was to see how and with what questions Chinese zooarchaeologist currently worked on in China. I had the pleasure to meet with zooarchaeologists Dr. Yuan Jing in Beijing and Dr. Ma Xiaolin in Zhengzhou. Dr Yuan Jing has worked with, among other things, re-search of the domestication of pigs (Yuan & Flad 2001), dogs (Yuan 1998) etc. and Dr. Ma Xiaolin who is currently working with material from the Yangshao settlement Xi’po in Henan (Ma 2005).

During our visit in Beijing and our field trip in Shaanxi and Henan new questions emerged, for example regarding the interpretation of the trenches surrounding several settlements as well as regarding the differences of settlements. As we came to understand they differed not only in size but also in geographical placement. Dr. Li Xinwei showed us the results of an extensive surveying in the area around in Lingbao county, the settlement were grouped into major centers (45-90 ha), minor centers (27-36 ha) and villages (< 18 ha). In the survey 13 settlements from the early Yangshao period was found, 19 from the middle Yangshao period, among them Xi’po, and eight from the late Yangshao period (Ma 2005:17ff.). The survey indicates among other things a notable change in the fluctuations of the population size and density, shown by difference in site numbers and settlement sizes. The population seems to accelerate in growth from the early to the middle Yangshao periods, followed by a sharp reduction from the late Yangshao period to the late Longshan period (Ma 2005:22f). Questions regarding the ritual landscape and the usage of these settlements seem to be possible research-collaborations that could be fruitful in the future. Others could concern specific finds or questions. From a Human-Osteological standpoint I find the burials of infants and small children in clay urns within the settlement area contra child burials in the cemeteries and gender archaeological approaches to the burials especially interesting. From a zooarchaeological standpoint I find the possibility of working on large materials, finds of fish or bird bones and the connection between iconography and the bones exiting. Another area well worth an effort is the study of social ranking and organization. Kim Seung-Og presses on how little archaeological work has been conducted on the origin of social ranking and organization in Chinese prehistory due to the fact that Chinese archaeology primarily has been concerned with chronology and typology (Kim 1994:122).

     Connected with the fourth question was another goal with our visit and that was to inquire about the possibility for further cooperation between the Archaeological Institute and our Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at SU and CASS. Meetings concerning this were fruitful and during the discussions Dr. Yuan Jing suggested that further cooperation could include Swedish zooarchaeologists spending time in China with research at the Archaeological Institute at CASS. During our visit we also discussed the possibility of collaborations or projects regarding Xi’po with Dr. Li Xinwei. Since that time Dr. Yuan Jing and Li Xinwei have repeated their invitation for closer collaboration between our institutions.


During the duration of this project we have come upon the same problem as many other western researchers, the problem of accessibility, both regarding literature which mainly can be described as a linguistic problem and from cultural differences and frames of references. There is need of a lot of basic work to be able to better understand and to get a grip of the Yangshao culture. Mainly to make the Chinese research available to western researchers throw both texts and the possibility to exchange. The best way to do so is to have frequent exchanges on several levels from MA students to professors. During our visit we found that Osteology could be a good start, as bones is a common language. Stockholm University and the students at OFL could benefit from an availability to large materials on which they can learn different methods, for example osteometric documentation of faunal and human remains, osteological studies of specific markers in the skeleton, osteological study of slaughter patterns on the basis of age structure, investigate depositional patterns of faunal remains in archaeological locations in order to highlight the relationship between man and animals. In return these results could hopefully benefit Chinese research. By forming joint research project and exchange programs we can build new platforms on which we can find new ideas and strategies to improve knowledge and techniques that will benefit all.     

     We also identified the need of participating in an excavation, for several reasons. Mainly for the need of understanding the strategic decisions made in the field, and partly to see what methods are being used and to get a chance to see the material in their contexts. An interesting project would be to initiate a conference in 2010 in memorandum of Johan Gunnar Andersson as it at the time will have passed 50 years since he died. A conference of this sort could bind many institutions close together: the Museum of Far East antiquities in collaboration, the Department of Archaeology and Classical studies at SU, RAA and CASS among others.

The Future

During the fall of 2006 and spring of 2007 we have, together with the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University (SU), been trying to create a -platform for future exchanges on PhD or MA level. In March 2007 a delegation from SU will go to China. The delegation consists of Professor Anders Andrén and Dr. Jan Storå from SU and Magnus Reuterdahl and Johan Klange, the Yangshao project.


     I would like to thank CASS and SU for the possibility to go abroad, to China, and to do research that has expanded my boarders of ideas and my contact network. A special thank you goes out to Dr. Yuan Jing for his generosity and hospitality at CASS archaeological laboratory in Beijing, to Dr. Li Xinwei who got be a mentor for us in Beijing, translating the conferences giving us literature tips and insight in the Yangshao culture and especially Xi’po,   to Dr. Ma Xiaolin for exhibiting his laboratory and collections in Zhengzhou, to Anders Kaliff for support and help, to Jan Storå for osteological expertise and support, to Ingmar Jansson for help and support during the project, to Magnus Fiskesjö who helped us with contacts in China and last but not least to Tom Morell one of the most important pieces in getting us to China and back again. A big “thank you” goes out to my partner in crime Johan Klange without whom this project and this article would never have been. Last I would thank my fiancée for allowing me this experience, for support and help during research and writing.


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Non Published work

Klange, Johan & Reuterdahl, Magnus 2005. Mystic Pottery and Cosmic Eggs – a study of two aspects of the Yangshao culture for a better understanding of its conceptual philosophy. Stockholm, Sweden.

Klange, Johan & Reuterdahl, Magnus 2006. “Yangshaoprojektet. “Rapport 1. Stockholm Sweden (in Swedish).

[1] Original source: The information is collected from a report edited by the Archaeological Team of Gansu Province in 1986: “The Late Yangshao Paintings Made on the Ground at the Dadiwan Site. Wenwu 1986:2:13-15”. (In Chinese.)

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