Anyang, in Henan Province in northern China, has a long and distinguished past having once been the capital of the Shang Dynasty more than 3,000 years ago.
In the late 19th century, an inscribed turtle shell led to the discovery of Anyang. The city was the last capital of the Shang Dynasty, being used from about BC 1554 to BC 1045 and was at least 9.7square miles. Among the finds at the site were palace foundations, ceramics, ancestor temples, more than 150,000 oracle bones inscribed with divinations, weapons and the remains of hundreds of human sacrifices.
Archaeology at Anyang
The first significant finds at Anyang were made in 1899. According to legend, oracle bones, tortoise shells and ox scapulas were found by a doctor who was looking for ‘dragon bones’ to treat a patient.
Excavations began in earnest at Anyang at the end of the nineteenth century, when hundreds of oracle bones were found near the city. In 1928 the Academic Sinica and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences began excavations there, and much of what we know about the ancient city has come from their finds.
Oracle Bones for Telling the Future
Among the finds at the site have been thousands of oracle bones containing inscriptions of the questions asked and answered received by the kings who used them.
Among the situations the kings sought guidance on were those with city-wide implications, such as whether or not to attack an enemy, situations to do with food and supplies, like whether or not to go hunting and the success of the millet harvest, and personal matters including concerns over a consort’s pregnancy and the best way to cure a toothache.
Influencing the Future
The kings also attempted to influence the future and the outcomes of the oracle bone readings through sacrifices of humans and animals. Some of the bones from these sacrifices were used as oracle bones to foresee the future and ask for advice on war, hunting, rainfall, agriculture, and even the king’s toothache.
The wide range of subjects on which the kings consulted their deities indicates that religion played a significant role in this society, even after the traditional gods were replaced by ancestor worship, and as many of the kings’ divinations involved issues that would have affected the whole population, it seems fair to assume that all the members of the community shared in these religious practices and beliefs.
Temples and Worship
The layout of the city placed the temples within the royal precinct, indicating they had a central role in the life of the city. Temples were used to carry out rituals dedicated to the supreme god Di, who the ancient Chinese believe had influence over nature and agriculture. Di was also attributed with encouraging war on enemy states.
While sacrifices were made first to the Di, later they were made to honoured ancestors of the kings, who eventually took over the role of supreme deity.
- Higham, C. (2009) ‘Complex Societies of East and Southeast Asia’ in C. Scarre (ed.) (2009) The Human Past, London, Thames and Hudson, pp.552-593