Shaft Tombs (China)

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The vertical shaft tomb characteristic of Bronze Age China (the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties) has two distinctive features. First, its walls step inward on all four sides, part way down the shaft, forming a shelf or ercengtai. Second, beneath the coffin or wooden burial chamber in the bottom of the shaft is a small pit, the yaokeng or ‘waist pit’, so called because it lies beneath the waist of the corpse. The ercengtai ordinarily carried mortuary offerings, which were also deposited between the coffin and the walls of the shaft or within the wooden burial chamber. The yaokeng contained sacrifices meant evidently to serve as guardians: either a dog or, in richer tombs, a man armed with a bronze or jade halberd (ge). Both the ercengtai and the sacrificed dog are features anticipated in Neolithic burials on the east coast (see Dadunzi). Human sacrifice is a recurrent feature of rich tombs in both the Shang and Zhou periods (see Anyang), and some of the victims, particularly those in Zhou tombs, appear to have been persons of rank. The largest burials of the type just described are the so-called Shang royal tombs at Anyang Xibeigang. Here the pits were approached by two or four entrance ramps aligned with the cardinal directions and sloping down into the shaft; only one ramp, that on the south side, descended into the burial chamber, the others ending on the ercengtai. Tomb 1004 at Xibeigang, average in size, was 12 metres deep; the pit proper measured 16 by 18 metres, while the total north-south length, including the ramps, was about 60 metres. The walls and ercengtai of these cruciform tombs were all made of earth pounded hard by the hangtu technique, and the tombs were filled with hangtu to the level of the ground surface. Monumental shaft tombs comparable to those at Xibeigang have been found at Sufutun (late Shang or early Western Zhou), Xincun (early Western Zhou), and Guweicun (late Eastern Zhou). Western Zhou burials in general do not depart from Shang practice, but at Guweicun a new feature is encountered, the burial mound, which was no doubt borrowed from the kurgans of the steppe nomads (seeaZsoPiNGSHAN). Also first appearing in late Eastern Zhou are tombs in which the burial is located in an annexe cut in the side of the vertical shaft; this construction too is anticipated by far earlier burials in south Russia. Eastern Zhou burials in the middle Yangzi region — the territory of the Chu state — by and large follow the northern tradition. The coffin was placed in a wooden chamber at the bottom of a rectangular shaft, the shaft sometimes having entrance ramps and an ercengtai. In a few large tombs, however, the shaft is entirely filled by a massive timber structure with separate compartments for furnishings and the coffins of attendants; these tombs omit the ercengtai and may depart from the usual rectangular plan (seeSui Xian). Chu tombs were often carefully sealed with layers of charcoal and clay and some have been found waterlogged but with their contents exceedingly well preserved (see Xinyang, Mawangdui). The tomb of the first Qin emperor (d. 210 bc) is covered by a large mound, as were some Han tombs, but the richest Han tomb so far excavated, at Mancheng in Hebei province, is a series of chambers excavated from a mountainside. This form of burial, often brick-built and vaulted, owes nothing to the shaft tombs it replaced.

The Macmillan dictionary of archaeology, Ruth D. Whitehouse, 1983Copied