Torched Shang Dynasty City Huanbei Was Destroyed by its Own Rulers

The Shang Dynasty of Ancient China is known for its divinations, oracle bone inscriptions and large urban centres. Now archaeologists have a new mystery to ponder. A team of researchers excavating a 3,300 year old Shang Dynasty palace-temple complex at the ancient city of Huanbei have discovered that it was burned down after only 50 years of use.

Making it more enticing is that it wasnt burnt down by an invasion force, but by the citys own rulers. They stripped the complex of all its goods before committing the act. The only thing they left behind were human sacrifices at least 40 of them in the largest building.

The palace-temple complex was at the centre of Huanbei. When the city was in use it had a population of at least 10,000 people. After Huanbei was gone, a city called Yinxu was built to the southwest. It remained the Shang capital until the end of the dynasty. Both cities are located in the area of modern day Anyang.

Shang is the first Chinese dynasty that archaeologists can prove actually existed. Scholars havent pinned down exact dates for its rise and fall, but it dies out around the middle of the 11th century BC.

Exploring Huanbei

Professor Zhichun Jing, of the University of British Columbia, has been working with colleagues in China to excavate and study Huanbei. He took the time to talk to Heritage Key about the latest findings.

He explained that Huanbei is a massive site larger than modern day Central Park in New York City. The palace-temple complex is in the centre of the city and is 41 hectares large. The rest of Huanbei totals about 470 hectares.

Only a small portion has been excavated or surveyed, said Jing.

Religion played an important role in its life. The planning of the city has to do with Shang cosmology, said Jing. Everything is actually oriented at 13 degree east of the north, something which is seen at other Shang sites. Understanding this cosmology is something that the team is trying to do.

The complex was surrounded by a wall, making it look like a city within a city. It had at least sixty buildings. The largest of them is a structure called ‘F1’. Its 174 meters wide by 90 meters long making it the largest building ever found in Bronze Age China. Archaeologists believe that it served both as a palace and as an ancestral temple. Jing explained that Shang Kings, at this time, served both a religious and administrative function, you really cannot separate the palace from the temple, he said.

This structure was low-lying (no more than three stories tall). Stone was used at the base of its columns and the walls were made of earthen material, such as rammed earth and adobe. Jing said that this earthen material was very sturdy – as hard as any brick.

A gateway at its southern end had two openings that would have let people into the building. Numerous sacrificial pits were found there. Once you’d gone through the gateway you would find yourself in a massive courtyard, much of which is unexcavated.

The main hall was on the north side of the building and had many walled chambers. There were 10 doorways there that would have made it easy for people to get out into the courtyard.

To the north of this massive structure, there was a second building that archaeologists refer to as F2. Its the second largest structure at Huanbei, measuring 92 meters east-west and 68.5 meters north-south. Again earthen materials were used in its construction. The foundations were made of silty and dark grey clay. Yellow and clay silt were used above it. This building would also have played a religious/administrative role.

Professor Jing generously released detailed virtual reconstructions of these two buildings. They can be seen alongside this article.

Burning it down

One would expect that a 41 hectare palace-temple complex would yield loads of artefacts pottery, gems and exotic items, the kind of stuff that gets museum curators excited. But in this case the team found very little.

The floor of the buildings is very clean said Professor Jing.

Lets move and take everything with us and then destroy the city by a severe set of fire

All the buildings… are covered by a single layer of the red burnt earth, which are the collapse deposit due to a fire, he said. The whole palace city (was) destroyed by a single fire.

Now, this doesnt look like a military attack. If that were the case how could the defenders move so much stuff so quickly? Also where are the bodies or evidence of a battle?

No this palace wasnt burnt down by invaders. It was torched by its own occupants. Lets move and take everything with us and then destroy the city by a severe set of fire, said Jing, explaining how this would have worked.

The palace area wasnt the only thing to vanish. The rest of Huanbei seems to have been abandoned as well.

This city survived only for a half-century, after its collapse another city (Yinxu) was constructed just across the river, said Professor Jing.

Human Sacrifices

There is one important thing the occupants didnt remove before they burned it down its human sacrifices. The largest building has at least 40. This is a really large number of sacrificial pits, said Professor Jing. He added that this number is likely to grow as excavation continues.

Human sacrifice was not unusual during the Shang Dynasty. Most medium/large size tombs, from this time period, have human sacrifices. Thousands of them have been found at Yinxus royal cemetery.

Archaeologists cannot yet say for sure who the sacrificial victims at Huanbei were. Professor Jing said that more scientific analysis needs to be done on them. But based on oracle bone inscriptions found at other Shang sites, he does have a working idea.

According to oracle bones inscriptions the victims for the ritual killings (were) likely the captives of the war the Shang engaged with neighbours, said Jing. Definitely by the end of the dynasty the war captives were the primary source of human victims.

Another possibility is that some of the sacrifices might be criminals, who were made to pay the ultimate price for their alleged crimes.

Strontium analysis performed on human bones show that when Yinxu was first founded, after the abandonment of Huanbei, many of the sacrifices were local people, likely criminals.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

A city as massive as Huanbei will take many years to excavate and explore. Thankfully, this is one of those rare cases where archaeologists have the luxury of time.

Even though only a small portion of the site has been excavated, Huanbei, along with Yinxu, has recently been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site a designation that will help protect it from modern development. Over 30 square kilometres have been designated as protected.

Without the threat of a bulldozer archaeologists will be able to excavate the site slowly and carefully, without having to dig until resources for conservation become available.