Ceramic tiles with characters meaning "long life," found intact.
Courtesy the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology
In 2003 Chinese archaeologists began excavating piles of tiles and bricks in Sanyangzhuang, a rural town located in the central plain of China. What they found exceeded their wildest expectations: an entire immaculately preserved village dating back more than 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty. The site consists of four walled houses—each the residence of an extended family—surrounded by wells, toilets, ponds, and trees.
In July, archaeologist Tristram Kidder of Washington University in St. Louis and his Chinese colleagues discovered evidence of even older agricultural fields beneath the excavated houses and a larger buried town about two miles away. “If these are preserved in the same way the houses are, it would really turn out to be a staggering development,” Kidder says.
The 2003 find was buried intact by 28 inches of flood sediments, which formed a protective layer over the village. Kidder thinks a massive late-summer flood of the Yellow River hit so quickly that people left behind everything, from large grinding stones to tiny coins. In addition, impressions of mulberry leaves, considered a sign of silkworm production, were found, indicating that Sanyangzhuang was one of the places where the Silk Road began.
From the Washington University in St.Louis/May 24, 2010
An anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis is helping to reveal for the first time a snapshot of rural life in China during the Han Dynasty.
The rural farming village of Sanyangzhuang was flooded by silt-heavy water from the Yellow River around 2,000 years ago.
Working with Chinese colleagues, T.R. Kidder, PhD, professor and chair of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, is working to excavate the site, which offers a exceptionally well-preserved view of daily life in Western China more than 2,000 years ago.
The research was presented at the Society for American Archeology meeting in St. Louis in April and highlighted this month in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“It’s an amazing find,” Kidder says of the site, which was discovered in 2003. “We are literally sitting on a gold mine of archeology that is untapped.”
What researchers find fascinating and surprising, says Kidder, is that the town, though located in a remote section of the Han Dynasty kingdom, appears quite well off.
Exploration has revealed tiled roofs, compounds with brick foundations, eight-meter deep wells lined with bricks, toilets, cart and human foot tracks, roads and trees.
An impression of a mulberry leaf, a sign of silk cultivation, found at the Sanyangzhuang site/Courtesy the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology
An abundance of metal tools, including plow shares, have been found, as well as grinding stones and coins. Also found are fossilized impressions of mulberry leaves, which researchers see as a sign of silk cultivation.
“One could make the argument that this is where the Silk Road began,” Kidder says.
Kidder believes the site could be substantially larger than currently is known. The flood of sediment that buried the town also covered an area of more than 1,800 square kilometers.
Excavation has revealed two more buried communities beneath Sanyangzhuang. “This sedimentary archive goes to all the way back to the Pleistocene Era,” says Kidder, who has experience digging in silt-laden sites near the Mississippi River.
“We have a text written in dirt of environmental change through time that’s associated with the flooding of the Yellow River and its environmental relationships. We have an opportunity to examine an entire landscape dating from the Han and periods before,” he says.
Excavated remains of a wall near the site could reveal a walled town, which still is buried in the silt.