Archeology and History of the Silk Road

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Unearthing relics of an annihilated race


Western Xia Tombs, acclaimed as Oriental Pyramids, are the prime attraction in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui autonomous region.
Western Xia Tombs, acclaimed as Oriental Pyramids, are the prime attraction in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui autonomous region.
GENGHIS Khan obliterated most of the Dangxiang ethnic tribes for refusing to join his invasion of the Khwarezmian empire. Now archaeologists are trying to dig deeper to find out more about the race.
Archaeologists are digging for, and unearthing, answers about the Dangxiang peoples, who were wiped out in a mass slaughter.
Archaeologists are mining the Western Xia (1038-1227) tombs for narrative nuggets to resurrect the stories of the people who perished in Genghis Khan’s final battle. Little is known about the Dangxiang, also called the Tangut. Most of what has been determined so far has been gleaned from the Western Xia’s nine imperial mausoleums and 250 royal family tombs that stud the desert outside of Yin-chuan, the capital of today’s Ningxia Hui autonomous region.
These tombs’ ruins commemorate not only the ethnic rulers but also their tribe’s last stand. However, only one of these structures − mausoleum No.3, believed to belong to the Western Xia’s first emperor − has been fully excavated. Like Dangxiang history, the tombs are obscure from public consciousness. They are shadows of their previous form, stripped by decay of the tiled flesh that made them the first fusion of traditional ethnic Han mausoleum design and Tibetan Buddhist temple architecture.
The tombs may have served as a metaphor for the ethnic group’s exterminated tribes. Most of the sepulchres’ structures have worn away. The sands of time have ground the structures from octagonal towers into conical earthen mounds − nubs of their former selves. They look like huge loess dollops or colossal termite mounds, although their initial splendour is believed to have rivalled that of Beijing’s iconic Ming tombs.
Nevertheless, the burial chambers’ current shapes have endowed them with marketing magnetism. The “Oriental Pyramids” are by far the city’s principal attraction. Their contours resemble the Helan mountains that serve as their backdrop. Helan’s peaks are crowned by the Great Wall’s terminus, constructed to keep out the Mongolian invaders, who ultimately breached the bulwark to extinguish Western Xia.
While most tribes were wiped out, some Dangxiang peoples outlasted their empire. One excavator is believed to be the last emperor’s 23rd generation descendant.
The main tombs were discovered during the construction of a military air base in 1972. The unearthing of ancient bricks and pottery offered the first hints that the soil encrusted something special.
As a result, the military brought in archaeologists, who discovered coins, sculptures and tablets engraved with Western Xia’s unique characters. This enticed them to dig deeper, whereupon they discovered the mausoleums.
Only nine of the empire’s 12 kings’ final resting places have been found. But many smaller mounds belonging to imperial relatives or left empty − presumably as red herrings to sidetrack tomb raiders − occupy surrounding farmlands.
However, most tombs are rarely visited, as they are dispersed, difficult to reach and in ruins. Many believe they might be “constellated” as such to emulate prominent heavenly bodies’ positioning.
While the rulers’ tombs are crumbling, the four corner towers, sacrificial halls and mourning platforms surrounding each of them have eroded and are almost beyond recognition.
Yet, even in its original splendour, the 50sqkm burial complex would offer deficient testimony of the dynasty that ruled about 830,000sqkm of today’s Ningxia, Gansu province, much of the Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous regions, some of outer Mongolia, and northern Shaanxi and eastern Qinghai provinces.
Western Xia dominated this sphere by counterbalancing expansionist hostility against land-lusting neighbours - the Song (960-1279), Jin (1115-1234) and Liao (916-1125) dynasties. The dynasty was founded when Li Yuanhao’s father, Li Deming, crushed the Huang Chao peasant insurgence on behalf of the declining Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
Li Yuanhao prolonged power by resisting Song subjugation after the Tang expired. But the last emperor was unable to fend off Genghis Khan’s unified Mongolia, which launched six campaigns against Western Xia in the two decades preceding the empire’s fall.
The conquest took the lives of not only Western Xia’s last ruler but also tens of thousands of civilians. Many tribes were totally annihilated.
Some of the remaining Dangxiang joined the Mongolian military. Others dispersed around the continent. Artifacts bearing Dangxiang script from as late as the 16th century have been discovered in Central China.
The Western Xia museum in the tomb complex houses over 670 artifacts and 450 research papers about the empire. These trace the ethnic groups’ anthropological evolution through its power spike, starting with its abandonment of nomadic life, and early adoption of Tang songs and legal systems. It later absorbed elements of the Liao and Song dynasties, and the Tibetan and Uyghur ethnicities.
But some indigenous traditions persisted. Men shaved their heads, aside from pigtails on the sides and one ponytail rising from the crown in deliberate contrast to the Han style.
The defiant were beheaded. The decree was: “Lose your hair and keep your head, or lose your head and keep your hair.”
It’s hardly surprising, given the expansionist ambitions of Western Xia and its neighbours, that many of the museum’s relics are of military origin. The empire began and ended by the sword. Among the arrowheads, spears and helmets are a studded porcelain grenade and one of only two sets of chain mail from the period.
Next to the museum is a courtyard filled with scaled-down replicas of the original mausoleums. The side halls display wax-statue recreations of tales from the empire’s rise to its demise.
Though inanimate, even cheesy, these mannequins and reenacted scenes breathe some life into the story of an empire that disappeared along with most of its peoples − one that’s only now resurfacing as archaeologists sift through the sands of time. − China Daily/Asia News Network

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