Anyang: Enormous Bronze Age Shang Dynasty Capital in China

What Scientists Learned from 3500 Year Old Oracle Bones at Anyang

Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones, Yin Capital at Anyang
Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones, Yin Capital at Anyang. Popolon

The modern city of Anyang, China lies in the northern province of Henan. For centuries, its secret past lay hidden beneath the city streets, but in 1899, hundreds of oracle bones, ornately carved tortoise shells and ox scapulas, were found, according to legend, by a doctor in search of "dragon bones" for an ill city administrator. Full-scale excavations at Anyang began in 1928, and what has been revealed in the following decades is a major capital city of the Shang Dynasty (1554 B.C.

to 1045 B.C.).

Anyang was the last capital of the Shang Dynasty, and easily the most important Bronze Age site in east Asia. Since 1928, Chinese archaeologists have unearthed extensive architectural foundations, tombs, chariots, thousands of bronze vessels, almost uncountable ceramics, and about 150,000 oracle bones. The oracle bones attest to a rich written language, primarily used for divination. The occupation at Anyang includes the remains of over 50 stamped-earth foundations of temples and palaces, the largest of which measures some 70x40 meters (230x130 feet). 

Residential and specific workshop areas within the city contain evidence of carving, particularly of jade; bronze casting; pottery making; and bone working. Multiple, massive bone and bronze working areas have been discovered, organized into a network of workshops under the control of a hierarchical lineage of families. This was a sophisticated Bronze Age culture, driven by millet agriculture and covering at its maximum some 50 hectares (about 125 acres).

Inscriptions and Understanding Anyang

Over 50,000 inscribed oracle bones and several dozen bronze-vessel inscriptions dated to the Late Shang period (1220-1050 BC) have been recovered from Anyang. These documents, together with later, secondary texts, were used by Campbell to document in detail the political network at Anyang.

Anyang was, like most Bronze Age cities in China, a king's city, built to the order of the king as a created center of political and religious activity. Its core was a royal cemetery and palace-temple area. The king was the lineage leader, and responsible for leading ritual involving his ancient ancestors and other living relations in his clan.

Inscriptions also have identified the existence of "schools" at Anyang, perhaps places for literacy training. Smith instead argues that the trainees at the schools were taught the skills specifically to maintain divination records.

The Anyang Project

George "Rip" Rapp Jr. was kind enough to share information concerning his investigations at Anyang, part of a cooperative project between the now-defunct Archaeometry Lab of the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This project involved extensive archaeological survey, including the use of core drilling, excavation, geoarchaeology, and various specialized studies in palynology, paleoethnobotany, paleopathology, DNA, and ceramic petrography. The Anyang project had a strong focus on interdisciplinary approaches to the study of human societies and landscapes during the prehistoric and early historic periods in the Anyang region; it involved both intensive and extensive archaeological survey, geoarchaeology, and various specialized studies in archaeological sciences.

Three seasons of fieldwork were undertaken at Anyang (two in 1997, one in 1998). The fieldwork relocated many sites discovered in the 1960's and discovered dozens of new sites. Intensive survey in the spring of 1998 led to the discovery of the Huayuanzhuang site north of the Huan River. It measures up to 150 ha (370 ac) in size and is dated to the middle Shang period (1435-1220 BC), immediately before Yinxu--the late Shang capital, 2 miles south. Huayuanzhuang may have been a political center during the Middle Shang Period, possibly a capital city on its own.


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Smith AT. 2010. The evidence for scribal training at Anyang. In: Li F, and Prager Banner D, editors. Writing and Literacy in Early China. Seattle: University of Washington Press. p 172-208.

Wei S, Song G, and He Y. 2015. The identification of binding agent used in late Shang Dynasty turquoise-inlayed bronze objects excavated in Anyang. Journal of Archaeological Science 59:211-218.