Anyang: Enormous Bronze Age Shang Dynasty Capital of Yin, China

What Scientists Learned from 3,500 Year Old Oracle Bones at Anyang

Ritual Grain Server (Gui) with Dragon Handles LACMA
Ritual Grain Server (Gui) with Dragon Handles LACMA. Ashley Van Haeften

Anyang is the name of a modern city in Henan Province of eastern China that contains the ruins of Yin, the massive capital city of the late Shang Dynasty (1554 -1045 BC). In 1899, hundreds of ornately carved tortoise shells and ox scapulas called oracle bones were found in Anyang. Full-scale excavations began in 1928, and since then, investigations by Chinese archaeologists have revealed nearly 25 square kilometers (~10 square miles) of the enormous capital city.

Some of the English-language scientific literature refers to the ruins as Anyang, but its Shang Dynasty residents knew it as Yin.

Founding Yin

Yinxu (or the "Ruins of Yin" in Chinese) has been identified as the capital Yin described in Chinese records such as the Shi Ji, based on the inscribed oracle bones which (among other things) document the activities of the Shang royal house.

Yin was founded as a small residential area on the south bank of the Huan river, a tributary of the Yellow River of central China. When it was founded, an earlier settlement called Huanbei (sometimes referred to as Huayuanzhuang) was located on the north side of the river. Huanbei was a Middle Shang settlement built around 1350 BC, and by 1250 covered an area of approximately 4.7 sq km (1.8 sq km), surrounded by a rectangular wall.​

An Urban City

But in 1250 BC, Wu Ding, the 21st king of the Shang Dynasty {ruled 1250-1192 BC], made Yin his capital.

Within 200 years, Yin had expanded into an enormous urban center, with an estimated population of somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 people. The ruins include more than 100 pounded earth palace foundations, numerous residential neighborhoods, workshops and production areas, and cemeteries.

The urban core of Yinxu is the palace-temple district at the core called Xiaotun, covering approximately 70 hectares (170 acres) and located at a bend in the river: it may have been separated from the rest of the city by a ditch.

More than 50 rammed earth foundations were found here in the 1930s, representing several clusters of buildings which had been built and rebuilt during the city's use. Xiaotun had an elite residential quarter, administrative buildings, altars, and an ancestral temple. Most of the 50,000 oracle bones were found in pits in Xiaotun, and there were also numerous sacrificial pits containing human skeletons, animals, and chariots.

Residential Workshops

Yinxu is broken into several specialized workshop areas that contain evidence of jade artifact production, the bronze casting of tools and vessels, pottery making, and bone and turtle shell working. Multiple, massive bone and bronze working areas have been discovered, organized into a network of workshops that were under the control of a hierarchical lineage of families.

Specialized neighborhoods in the city included Xiamintun and Miaopu, where bronze casting took place; Beixinzhuang where bone objects were processed; and Liujiazhuang North where serving and storage pottery vessels were made. These areas were both residential and industrial: for example, Liujiazhuang contained ceramic production debris and kilns, interspersed with rammed-earth house foundations, burials, cisterns, and other residential features.

A major road led from Liujiazhuang to the Xiaotun palace-temple district. Liujiazhuang was likely a lineage-based settlement; its clan name was found inscribed on a bronze seal and bronze vessels in an associated cemetery.

Death and Ritual Violence at Yinxu

Thousands of tombs and pits containing human remains have been found at Yinxu, from massive, elaborate royal burials, aristocratic graves, common graves, and bodies or body parts in sacrificial pits. Ritual mass killings particularly associated with royalty were a common part of Late Shang society. From the oracle bone records, during Yin's 200-year occupation more than 13,000 humans and many more animals were sacrificed.

There were two types of state-supported human sacrifice documented in the oracle bone records found at Yinxu. Renxun or "human companions" referred to family members or servants killed as retainers at the death of an elite individual.

They were often buried with elite goods in individual coffins or group tombs. Rensheng or "human offerings" were massive groups of people, often mutilated and decapitated, buried in large groups for the most part lacking grave goods.

Rensheng and Renxun

Archaeological evidence for human sacrifice at Yinxu is found in pits and tombs found across the entire city. In residential areas, sacrificial pits are small in scale, mostly animal remains with human sacrifices relatively rare, most with only one to three victims per event, although occasionally they had as many as 12. Those discovered at the royal cemetery or in the palace-temple complex have included up to several hundred human sacrifices at once.

Rensheng sacrifices were made up of outsiders, and are reported in the oracle bones to have come from at least 13 different enemy groups. Over half of the sacrifices were said to have come from Qiang, and the largest groups of human sacrifices reported on the oracle bones always included some Qiang people. The term Qiang may have been a category of enemies located west of Yin rather than a particular group; little grave goods have been found with the burials. Systematic osteological analysis of the sacrifices has not been completed as of yet, but stable isotope studies among and between sacrificial victims were reported by bioarchaeologist Christina Cheung and colleagues in 2017; they found that the victims were indeed nonlocals.

It is possible that rensheng sacrifice victims may have been slaves before their deaths; oracle bone inscriptions document the enslavement of the Qiang people and chronicling their involvement in productive labor.

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 Yinxu. These documents, together with later, secondary texts, were used by British archaeologist Roderick Campbell to document in detail the political network at Yin.

Yin 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 rituals involving his ancient ancestors and other living relations in his clan.

In addition to reporting political events such as the numbers of sacrificial victims and to whom they were dedicated, the oracle bones report the king's personal and state concerns, from a toothache to crop failures to divination. Inscriptions also refer to "schools" at Yin, perhaps places for literacy training, or perhaps where trainees were taught to maintain divination records.

Bronze Technology

The Late Shang dynasty was at the apex of bronze making technology in China. The process used high-quality molds and cores, which were pre-cast to prevent shrinkage and breaking during the process. The molds were made of a fairly low percentage of clay and an accordingly high percentage of sand, and they were fired before use to produce a high resistance to thermal shock, low thermal conductivity, and a high porosity for adequate ventilation during casting.

Several large bronze foundry sites have been found. The largest identified to date is the Xiaomintun site, covering a total area of over 5 ha (12 ac), up to 4 ha (10 ac) of which have been excavated.

Archaeology in Anyang

To date, there have been 15 seasons of excavations by Chinese authorities since 1928, including the Academia Sinica, and its successors the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. A joint Chinese-American project conducted excavations at Huanbei in the 1990s.

Yinxu was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.