Notes on Chinese tomb horse sacrifices and chariot burials


(Beijing Time) Saturday, March 16, 2002
Excavation of Zhou Dynasty Chariot Tombs Reveals More About Ancient Chinese Society
For the Chinese, the Year of the Horse that began on February 12 symbolizes prosperity and calmness. For Ma Juncai, an archaeologist based in Central China’s Henan Province, and his colleagues, their work in the new year looks set to yield more interesting discoveries of horses and chariots.

For the Chinese, the Year of the Horse that began on February 12 symbolizes prosperity and calmness. For Ma Juncai, an archaeologist based in Central China’s Henan Province, and his colleagues, their work in the new year looks set to yield more interesting discoveries of horses and chariots.

They are confident that their excavations, which are taking place in Houduanwan Village in Xinzheng, will probably provide more evidence that will help teach people about ancient Chinese rituals, handicrafts and social stratification from as far back as 2,500 years ago.

Ma and his team from the provincial archaeological institute have worked on the Houduanwan site for months, since local villagers called them in last year.

They have already discovered six large and medium-sized tombs and two chariot tombs. Their findings, which were reported in the latest issues of Cultural Relics World, a Chinese language monthly magazine, offered further proof of an era when chariots and horses were used as transportation and battle vehicles in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). Horses played an important role that represented both power and beauty and even the powerful and the rich had to make sure that their afterlife be furnished with decorations of horses and chariots.

It was indeed a time when sacrificing horses became part of a highly complicated ritual system in ancient China.

To uphold the noble class’ ruling status, the supreme Zhou kings, as the dynastic decree demanded, could have jade, bronze, ivory, leather and wood decorations on the sacrificial chariots.

From the No 1 chariot site, Ma and his colleagues found four kinds of decorations. The jade ornaments, reserved for royals, were missing.

This coincides with historical records which indicate that the dukes of the Zheng State held power only next to the Zhou royals who were not only relatives of the Zhou kings, – but who were also responsible for building one of the five most powerful states in the early Spring and Autumn Period in Chinese history.

But family disputes reduced Zheng’s power. In 375 BC, Zheng was annexed and became part of the adjacent Han State.

Ma said that an interesting thing about the chariots sacrificed in the Zheng State was that all the slain horses were put at the bottom of the tomb, above them were the main part of the chariots.

Having worked on the sacrificial sites of the Zheng State in 1997, Ma Juncai noted that the horses in No 1 chariot site were larger than those in the sacrificial site.

“The sacrificial horses were raised just for the ritual. But the horses here are taller and had obviously worked on the chariots before they were killed,” he said.

Initial excavation also discovered a dog, which was a common sacrificial animal for the tombs of the Zheng State.

All the chariot wheels have two wooden sticks, and most have traces of leather belts which once held the horses.

Evidence such as this has led archaeologists to believe that the chariots were used in real life. Compared with chariots made specifically for burial purposes, these practical chariots are more valuable.

Meanwhile, the saddle and other riding accessories were buried together with the chariots’ owner. In other states of the Spring and Autumn Period, the chariots were kept intact, with the horses laid under the shafts.

Ma said that the difference reflects the unique belief of Zheng State residents: in the old world only the chariots’ owner could command his horses because he had the riding accessories.

From the same No 1 chariot burial site, archaeologists have recovered 37 wheels standing along a wall in the pit.

Ma explained that it’s possible that one wheel was stolen from the tomb, or else it is still buried somewhere. It’s also possible that the burial site contains a single-wheeled chariot or cart that was driven or carried by horses, dogs, or even humans.

While most wheels measure 1.4 metres in diameter, two wheels are a lot bigger, at 1.7 metres in diameter. They must have been used on a very large chariot.

The 22 chariots discovered so far have all been different sizes.

The two largest chariots are 2-metres deep and 1.54-metres wide. Two adults could lie side by side comfortably in such a chariot.

Being 1-metre deep and 1.5-metres wide, the five medium-sized chariots could provide seats for three people. The decoration and structure of these five chariots are unrivalled among all the chariots.

It is possible that they had served as guards of honour for their prestigious master in real life.

The 15 smallest chariots at 0.9-metres deep and 1.3-metres wide could hold one or two people. Hunting and riding competitions were important social occasions to show off the nobles’ fortune and prestige. The small chariots were fast and agile in chasing the prey.

With the head pointing west, the horses were piled under the chariots. To better preserve the horses, archaeologists have only excavated a few of them. It is estimated that over 40 horses were put in four groups.

To Chinese archaeologists, Xinzheng County where Ma and his colleagues now work is a treasure trove.

In the Spring and Autumn Period and the following Warring States Period (475-221 BC), Xinzheng was capital of the Zheng and Han States for 539 years.

Extending from east to west for some 22 kilometres, the narrow horn-shaped ancient city once accommodated nobles in the western half, and common people in the eastern half. Today, the earth-rammed wall of the ancient city is still well-preserved.

Since 1923, when a large tomb belonging to a Zheng nobleman was unearthed at Lijialou Village, Xinzheng has continued to attract the attention of archaeologists and historians.

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