Sunday, October 16, 2011

Blast from the Past: Ancient West-East Contacts

Woohooo!  This is our 5100th blog post in about 4.5 years (we went online with the blog at the end of April, 2007).  I wanted to make it something special. 

This was pretty big news back in 2003, but subsequent discoveries continue to come to light and show a long and very old history of contact between the people of the west and the people of the far east.  I'm still amazed, for instance, about a report that I used in my 2001 paper presented to the IGK about some ancient Egyptian battle maces being found in far northwest Asia; they were of the kind used around 3000 BCE!

This is another article I came across in old files saved on my antique Systemax desktop last night (see previous post) while I was looking for those old 1999 IGK-Hamburg photographs (posted last night)! 

I keep going back in my mind to that time in the early 2000's; Ricardo Calvo died in September, 2002 and in July 2003, Ken Whyld died.  At the time of their deaths both of these eminent chess historians were doing research on Persia, its language, its religion, and its trade contacts (long established), with China; Ricardo especially thought that it was the Persians who first developed "chess" as we think of it, and Ken was looking at the linguistic/etymological roots of the names of some chess pieces in the Avestan language.  He thought there was a story to be learned from those linguistic roots about the origins of chess. 

The discovery reported in the August 26, 2003 release below, turned out to be one of the most sensational archaeological discoveries ever in China - as you'll see in information I posted from 2005.

You may find this chart of chronology of the Chinese early dynasties of help in placing these events on a time line:

[I have reformatted the text, but otherwise it is all original]

Dave Meadows'

(Explorator 6.20)

Not sure how to deal with this one, but it is a translation of an article which appeared in a Chinese newspaper *Wen Hui Bao* (August 26, 2003) and was sent to me for wider dissemination:

In the tomb were discovered a painted stone outer coffin (i.e., a stone sarcophagus) and a set of engraved stone wall reliefs, plus the finds also include the first uneathing of textual materials relating to Sogdians from the Western Regions

Filed by Han Hong, our reporter in Shaanxi
Transmitted telegraphically from Xi'an on Aug. 25

A rare large-scale tomb dating to the Northern Zhou period 1,400 years ago was recently quite unexpectedly discovered at a construction site (see photograph at the right) in the northern suburbs of Xi'an by specialists from the Xi'an City Office for Archeology and the Preservation of Cultural Relics who have now explored and excavated it.

Discovered in the tomb was a stone GUO decorated with colorful paintings. (A GUO [sarcophagus] is a large "coffin" outside the coffin that indicates the stature and position of the tomb occupant.) On the
sarcophagus were discovered writing that describes Sogdian culture and circumstances concerning cultural exchange with the Central Plains.

This is a unique instance in excavations within China. It is said that  this is the oldest stone sarcophagus discovered to date in Shaanxi Province.

This newly discovered tomb is located in Jingshangcun (Upper Well Village) in the northern suburbs of Xi'an 3.5 km west of the site of Han Dynasty Chang'an.

At the site, this reporter observed that the pit of the large tomb has the shape of an inverted cone with the "bottom pointing skyward" and opening out toward the top. Standing at the upper edge of the pit and looking down toward the bottom immediately makes one feel dizzy.  On the floor of the 13 meter deep pit lined with bricks quietly rests the stone sarcophagus which is securely covered with a plastic tarpaulin.  Sun Fuxi, the Director of the Xi'an Office for Archeology and the Preservation of Cultural Relics which organized the dig, explained that the seat of the tomb is situated in the north and faces south. The tomb chamber and the ceiling well, passageway compartments, and entrance path
all together are 48 meters in length. There are five ceiling wells and five passageway compartments.

The stone sarcophagus at the bottom of the pit is 2.46 meters long, 1.56 meters wide, and 1.7-8 meters high.  At present, a portion of it is still buried in the soil. This large stone sarcophagus employs an imitation wood construction in the form of a hip and gable roof. Since the inside of the sarcophagus is still  completely filled with accumulated earth, it is still not known what
is inside of it, but the surface of the stone sarcophagus is everywhere covered with pictures engraved in medium relief. Most of the reliefs have been painted, and there are portions with gilding. The coloring is very rich. Most of the designs have to do with entertainers. There are also pictures with a considerable number of beasts with human heads, human bodies with the heads of beasts, and birds with human heads. In addition, a small amount of human bones has been found in the tomb. [Inside the coffin or inside the tomb - indicating that some people were left behind as sacrifices?]

Wall paintings have been found on the left and right sides of the entrances to the five passageway chambers. However, because the paintings were done on a surface of lime that had been applied
directly to the mud wall, only traces of the paintings remained after excavation.

Sun Fuxi explained that, according to preliminary excavation findings, the tomb belongs to the Northern Zhou period [c. 557 - 581 CE] and the tomb occupant was a leader of Zoroastrianism (also called "Fire Worshipping Religion") who belonged to the kingdom of Shi of the Nine Kingdoms of Zhaowu (a special Chinese term in antiquity for the minority people living in the area of modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). His grandfather and father had both served as __sabao__ for the kingdom of Shi (__sabao__ were the leaders responsible for supervising merchants and commerce, and were also chieftains of tribal confederations combining governmental and religious duties in one person).

During the Northern Zhou period, the tomb occupant himself had been appointed as Panshi (Supervisor) of Liangzhou (the area from Wuwei to Pingliang in modern Gansu) in charge of the  affairs of all those national minorities from Sogdiana, Central Asia, and Western Asia who entered Chinese territory. Sun Fuxi noted that Liangzhou was an important "transfer station" for Sogdians passing from West Asia and Central Asia to China in those times.

This Northern Zhou tomb is rich in typical cultural features of the Western Regions, and for the first time offers excavated written materials relating to Sogdians of the Western Regions. The
archeological workers explained that, aside from a portion of the written materials that can be read, there is still a portion that cannot  be identified. Whether it is old Arabic [VHM: this seems highly
unlikely to me], or old Persian, or Persian-Parthian [VHM: the reporter writes Boxi Botuowen; it is very difficult to figure out what he means by this {possibly Middle Persian - or was he thinking of Tocharian?}] requires additional research to determine.

Translated by VHMair (Victor Mair?  Wow!)
A few years later...

CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 1, March 2005

[It looks like the book is written in Chinese; unfortunate!  Most people on the world can't read it!]

Review: Shi Anchang, Huotan yu Jisi Niaoshen (Fire Altars and Avian Deities as Sacrificial Officiants), Beijing: Zijincheng Chubanshe (Forbidden City Publishing House), December 2004, 228 pages, 120 plates and illustrations, 2 maps.

This timely work documents the current state of studies of Sogdian and Zoroastrian influences on Chinese society and art by a researcher from the Palace Museum in Beijing. Shi Anchang (b. 1945) was at the forefront of these studies as they developed dramatically during the last decade of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century. Although some of the papers that appear in this collection have been previously published, they have been skilfully re-edited and presented together with seamlessly interpolated new explanatory material that coalesces to form a smooth and coherent narrative. The sequence of material in this volume enables the reader to accompany the author from his first tentative steps in the early 1990s as a cataloguer handling "foreign" material of unknown origin in the collection of the Palace Museum that had been first discovered in Luoyang and Anyang in the 1920s.

The process, by which the Palace Museum originally came to acquire materials later identified to be Zoroastrian and Sogdian in inspiration, is a microcosm of the museum's development as a safe haven for endangered antiquarian material during the early years of its development – from 1925 - under its first prominent director, Ma Heng (1881-1955). Ma Heng was a pioneer both in the formulation of the principles of modern Chinese archaeology, initiating the introduction of archaeology as a subject at Peking University in the 1920s, and in the establishment of intellectually rigorous guidelines for both libraries and museums. In the early 1930s, Ma Heng participated in excavations at the Han-Wei period site of the Taixue (Imperial College) in Luoyang. The Beimangshan area of Luoyang, where there is a high concentration of ancient graves, was at that time plagued by tomb robbers. The rapidity with which material was being stripped from the area left Ma Heng with little choice but to document the various textual and sculptural items being discovered by making rubbings of these inscriptions and carvings. By the time of his death, Ma Heng had assembled an invaluable collection of some 9,000 rubbings, which are one of the most valuable sources for the history of the Wei-Jin period, and these he bequeathed to the Palace Museum.

Fig. 1 View of restored coffin bed with screen from Northern
Zhou tomb of An Jia in Xi'an
The Wei-Jin period was one of the most remarkable phases in acculturation in ancient Chinese history, dramatically highlighted by the migration in 494 of more than one million people led by Emperor Xiaowen of the Tungusic ethnic group called Tuoba-Xianbei (Tabghach-Hsienpei) from Pingcheng (present day Datong) in north-eastern China to assume power in Luoyang, the traditional centre of Chinese power. In Luoyang, Emperor Xiaowen oversaw the final steps in the total adoption by his people of Chinese ritual culture and all its trappings. Although historians knew that the Tabghach people, like other groups of northern pastoral nomads, were past masters of acculturation, the specifics of cultural elements these people brought to the Central Plain were little documented, understood and appreciated. Shi Anchang observed that the stelae and carved stones that appeared in the tombs of these new foreign rulers and aristocrats in the Luoyang area were decorated with images of deities, fire altars and various winged beasts ultimately of Central Asian and Iranian origin, including the senmurv [is this the simorgh or simurgh known from Persian art?], a fantastic beast known to Western art historians from Byzantine pictorial art. The various iconographic elements indicated that many members of the Tabghach aristocracy ascribed to a form of Xianjiao (Chinese Zoroastrianism) clearly acquired from the Central Asian communities of merchants, mostly from Sogdia, who had settled through the urban centres of northern China during the late Eastern Han, Wei-Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties period.

Shi Anchang was one of the first scholars working on the study of stone carvings to recognise these Zoroastrian-Sogdian elements in six Northern Wei dynasty tomb epitaphs, the stele of Xiao Hong of the Liang dynasty, and in carved stones from aristocratic Northern Qi dynasty tombs in Anyang, not far from Luoyang. He prepared a systematic register of iconography documenting the motifs in these works for the purposes of analysis and cross-referencing. He presented the results of this work in five papers, among the 13 included in this volume. His research led him to later discover other "Zoroastrian" pieces in the collection of the Palace Museum, including a Sogdian ossuary purchased by the museum in 1957 from an antiquities store, and stone bed rubbings from Xinyang purchased in 1996.

Fig. 2 Panel from screen
surrounding coffin bed from
Northern Zhou tomb of An Jia in Xi'an
Shi Anchang's first papers on this subject appeared around the mid 1990s when the Russian scholar Boris Marshak also noted the iconographic similarities between the murals in the "Hall of the Ambassadors" at the Sogdian site of Pendjikent in Central Asia and the images on the carved stones from aristocratic tombs in Anyang. Shi Anchang's papers appeared prior to the spectacular Sogdian finds of the last few years in China: the discovery in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, in July 1999 of the stone outer coffin with fire altar and other images of the Central Asian Yu Hong; the discovery in May 2000 of the tomb of the Sogdian religious leader (sabao) called An Jia in Xi'an (see Figs. 1 and 2); and, the most spectacular of all, the discovery in June 2003 of the Northern Zhou tomb of the Sogdian, Squire Shi, also in Xi'an [see 2003 report, above]. There has now been an explosion of studies of this Chinese cultural phenomenon – and over the last three years there have been half a dozen major conferences on the subject, the most recent two held in late 2004 in Beijing and St. Petersburg, respectively.

It is salutary at this point to take stock of the accelerating rush of Sogdian and Zoroastrian studies and publications. It is quite clear that "Chinese Zoroastrianism" (variously called in Chinese Xianjiao, Huoxianjiao or Hutianjiao) observes different burial practices from "mainstream" Central Asian Zoroastrianism, and more attention needs to be paid to the question of whether elements of commoners' burials, as well as elite burials, also contained more muted "Zoroastrian" elements. Levels of acculturation, social stratification and regional differences all need to be distinguished within the generality of Chinese Zoroastrianism. Moreover, there is a lack of clarity on the boundaries between Sogdian and Iranian Zoroastrianism, Mazdaism and Avestan religions, Turkic-Mongol fire worship, Indo-Iranian Brahmanism, and their various permutations, often millenarian and linked with Maitreya cults. Chinese scholars have often too readily and uncritically drawn on Zoroastrian studies, perhaps only applicable to Iran, from Mary Boyce and other scholars in the field, and have stressed the similarities rather than the differences in the Iranian-Sogdian materials and Chinese imagery. Mary Boyce's hesitation to make definitive conclusions is often overlooked by her Chinese admirers. Even Shi Anchang, in his paper in this collection on the divine drug of the Zoroastrians, haoma (Sanskrit, soma), tends to disregard Mary Boyce's suggestion that the most likely candidate for the drug is ephedra, which in fact happens to have been found in graves in the Lop Nur area of Xinjiang. In Sogdian-Zoroastrian studies, as they are emerging in China, Shi Anchang may not be one of the most prominent historians, but he is one of the most measured voices, and his writing enables us to participate in the discovery of "Zoroastrianism" from within the discipline of Chinese sculptural epigraphy and the language of Chinese iconography. This imbues his writing with a sense of surprise, perhaps less evident in this collection than in the original papers as they appeared sequentially in the 1990s. His work also highlights some of the very original research being done today at the Palace Museum, where scholars have regained much of the initiative that characterised the first generation of archaeological and art history researchers working in the Forbidden City in the period from 1925 onwards. As part of this endeavour, this worthwhile volume is a well integrated contribution to an ambitious set of new studies being released by Forbidden City Publishing House. [BGD]

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