Testament to 3,000 years of Beijing triggers further exploration of the city's civilization
By Tao Zihui  ·  2021-05-21  ·   Source: NO.21 MAY 27, 2021
Plant seeds from 3,000 years ago recently unearthed from the Liulihe site (XINHUA)

Beijing has long been hailed as one of the oldest cities in the world—up to 3,000 years old. Controversies have lingered regarding the origins of this capital city. However, once people see the archaeological evidence in Liulihe with their own eyes, they will never have another doubt about this long history.

More than three decades ago, a batch of bronze ware bearing invaluable inscriptions from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 B.C.) was unearthed at Liulihe in Fangshan District, some 43 km southwest of downtown Beijing. The archaeological discovery proved Beijing had been the capital of the ancient Yan State 3,000 years ago.

Archaeological research also identified Liulihe as the earliest traceable source of urban civilization in Beijing, and the site has since been hailed as the origin of Beijing.

New findings

"People are curious about what the capital looked like and how its ancient residents lived. There are still a lot of mysteries to be solved," Wang Jing, a researcher with the Beijing Archaeological Research Institute, told Xinhua News Agency.

Key archaeological findings were recently made at the nearly 3,000-year-old city ruins. In the northwest of the Liulihe site, an ongoing excavation unveiled a complex of architectural remains with a clear layout, according to Wang, a leading archaeologist working on the site.

The constructions had been made using rammed earth. Each layer of earth was 8 to 12 cm in height. This is the first time this type of discovery has been made at Liulihe. The revealed part is 28 meters from east to west, and 26 meters from north to south. Its foundations are 1.62 meters deep, and the wall is 40 cm thick.

"The rammed earth constructions are of good quality and high-level architecture, showing its status as the capital city of a vassal state," Wang said.

As historical documents showed, Beijing was where the capital of the Yan State was located during the Western Zhou Dynasty. The state later rose as a power during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) before it was finally conquered by Qinshihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221– 206 B.C.) and the creator of the first unified Chinese territory, to serve as the northern frontier of his empire.

Wang said at least four separate strata of cultural relics demonstrating human activities were discovered on top of the newly found ruins.

"This indicated that the constructions had been abandoned and rebuilt several times, ranging from the early period to the late period of Western Zhou Dynasty," Wang said.

It also provided a glimpse into the origins of Beijing as a city. In spite of the historical status of the Yan State, the exact whereabouts of its capital city remained unknown for a long time.

"At the Liulihe site, we found more relics and traces of ancient people's daily use. They had a mature agricultural system and their dishes were actually nutritionally rich, including both meat and fruits," Yin Da, a researcher of archaeobotany with the Beijing Cultural Relics Institute, told Guangming Daily. The site establishes that Beijing was founded over 3,000 years ago and is an outstanding example of early urban civilization, according to Yin. He concluded that the ancient Yan State mainly relied on millet planting as well as the production of wheat and soybeans, forging a stable agricultural economy and an effective production pattern.

A bronze knife unearthed from a base of rammed earth (XINHUA)

Value and preservation

First discovered in the 1940s, the Liulihe site is about five sixths of the scale of the Forbidden City, with the remains of city walls, tombs, palaces, handicraft workshops and a large number of cultural relics such as the biggest bronze ritual item ever unearthed in Beijing.

The first archaeological excavation in the area was conducted by Peking University in the 1960s. Since then, Liulihe has been one of Beijing's archaeological highlights. In 1988, it was listed as a national-level heritage site.

Wang's colleague Zhao Fusheng was one of the first students at Peking University to major in archaeology. He participated in the excavations at Liulihe in the 1970s and 1990s.

"After we had attended courses for our major for just two months on campus, our professor directed us to initiate onsite excavations, and we had to learn through practice," said Zhao.

The new round of excavation at Liulihe started in 2019. Wang said the ongoing work has basically figured out the layout of the urban area and residential compounds of the city. Since then, the Beijing Cultural Relics Institute has been coordinating with Peking University and several others to carry out excavations at Liulihe, focusing on the core and tomb areas. With the help of modern science and technology, many new archaeological discoveries have been made.

Hundreds of artifacts were unearthed, including a bronze sword, bronze arrowheads, jade and stone relics. An additional 20,000 pottery shards have also been excavated.

Moreover, carbonized crop seeds such as millet, wheat and soybean help portray the picture of a booming agricultural society, Wang said. Millet is believed to have been the main crop in ancient Liulihe.

"The new findings give us a vital reference framework to better understand the governance and political system in that period," Wang said.

"The unearthed relics display the characteristics of both the agrarian culture in central China and the nomadic culture found in the north," she added. "They expose the pivotal role that the Liulihe site once played in cultural communication."

According to the Liulihe Relics Protection Plan (2020-35), ratified by the National Cultural Heritage Administration earlier this year, a relic park with a museum will be established at the site to preserve and exhibit objects from the ancient Yan State, and to carry forward traditional Chinese culture.

The researchers plan to apply an archaeological information system and a 3D geographic model to further clarify the site's layout and identify the scope and content of the tombs.

The excavation work uses cutting-edge technology. For instance, prior to commencing the actual "digging," the archaeologists first built a 3D measurement and control network, as well as applied the usage of drones.

Wang concluded that the new findings expand researchers' knowledge of the ancient Yan State, as well as provide new materials for the study of the systems of governance in ancient China. BR

(Print Edition Title: The Origin of a City)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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