This is an unpublished background article written as part of an exchange application in 2005. For more information about our project pleas check out this post.
Since we wrote this ”article” some of the ideas have proven valid and some hasn’t, for example the idea regarding Struthiolothus eggs have proven to be a dead end.
Evan though it isn’t up to date, I think it is intreseting to see it for what it is the starting point of our project, a mirror to past ideas and a reminder of what got us started. As in all cases when you get involved or interested in something you’ll learn and with the new input of information you are able to discard old thoughts and ideas and use that result to ask new questions and seek further information.
Mystic Pottery and Cosmic Eggs : A study of two aspects of the Yangshao culture for a better understanding of it’s conceptual philosophy by Magnus Reuterdahl & Johan Klange.
The Neolithic Yangshao culture, 6000-3000 BC, offers a puzzle for researchers, in its complex villages and great amounts of ceramics. The purpose of our research project is to better understand the conceptual philosophy behind the Yangshao culture, to do this we are going to investigate their contacts with the outside world as well as their internal ways of expression. To do this we are going to study two aspects of the culture, the painted ceramics and eggs of extinct ostriches witch have been deposited on Yangshao sites. The two groups of artifacts will be studied through their internal and external contexts and from the contacts that they may be an indication of.
The Yangshao culture is spread over an area, alongside the Yellow river, covering areas in both modern China and Inner Mongolia. The village-sites are usually found on riverbanks in the loess land (Barnes 1999:103).
The village of Jiangzhai is one of the few Yangshao settlements that are fully excavated. It is an example of a site situated on loess. The settlement area, covers circa two ha and is enclosed by a trench. Within the enclosure, pit buildings of different shape and size are found round a central circled square. The buildings are divided into five concentrations, within each of the concentrations there are several smaller buildings arranged round a larger one. To the southwest, outside the enclosure there are ceramic kilns. And to the southeast there is a burial ground.
The village plan of Jingzhai is similar to the one at Banpo, it differs however in the placing of the burial ground to the north and of the kilns to the east. One theory concerning the house clusters and graves is that they symbolize kin groupings. This has led to the interpretation that the Yangshao society might have been organized in a clan system. At the burial site of Yuanjunmiao archaeologists have found two grave clusters, the two clusters consists of three lines of graves, this probably indicates a parallel evolution over time. In general the female graves are richer endowed than male graves, Chinese archaeologists have interpreted this as evidence of a matriarchal society (Barnes 1999:104f). With the interpretations used in Swedish archaeology we would draw other analogies, it is in situations like this one the meeting between Swedish and Chinese archaeological theory could produce interesting discussions.
An example of this would be to study witch artifacts are regarded as being female and witch are regarded as male indicators in graves. These would then be compared with osteological material from the graves to study if the archaeological gender is coherent with the osteological sexing. This is a method that in recent years have been used in Swedish archaeology producing very interesting results in the showing of the existence of a queer gender in Swedish prehistory.
The Yangshao culture is most famous for its painted vessels. They are very beautiful, they also make up a part of the largest artifact category; ceramics. The Yangshao tradition is one of two ceramic traditions in China during the Neolithic era. The other one is the Longshan culture, both of the traditions are famous for their painted pottery. This category of ceramics is however quite scares within the artifact group in total. Changes in the painted designs are used to give a chronological frame, both within each village and within the culture as a whole. In the Yangshao culture the oldest painted pottery is found at the Banpo site, it bears angular geometric or naturalistic designs. A common naturalistic motive is fish, witch shows us that the fish most likely had a special meaning both for subsistence and ritual (Barnes 1999:98).
The design of the painted pottery changes over time and each group has been named after the site where it has been found, for example: Miaodigou, Dahecun, Majiayao, Banshan and Machang. The development led to several differences in the design and motives such as parallel ribbons, crosshatches, flowers, large spirals etc. (Barnes 1999:98). Sites that would be interesting to study more closely are among others Ho Yin, where a remarkable amount of painted pottery has been found, Yang Shao Tsuu, where an ostrich egg has been found and Po Chao Chai, where there has been no findings of painted pottery (Andersson 1943:65). According to Swedish archaeologist T. J. Arne there is a remarkable likeness between painted ceramics found in West Asia and the Tripolje culture in Ukraine (Arne 1945:I).
Is this proof of long distance contacts? Are there other areas where painted pottery has been found that shows similarities with the Yangshao culture? Is there a correlation between the animal bones found on Yangshao sites and the motives on the painted pottery from the same sites?
As early as at the first excavations at Yangshao sites, made by the Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson, eggshells from the extinct Struthiolothus were found. Struthiolothus is a species of ostrich that most likely was extinct long before the Neolithic era in China began. It is perhaps fortunate that it was Johan Gunnar Andersson who was in charge of these early excavations since he was well educated as a geologist and had knowledge in both anthropological zoology and paleontology. This is probably why he could identify the eggshells. In an article, published in ”Essays on the Cenozoic of northern China (1923)”, J. G. Andersson gives a research survey over the findings of eggs from Struthiolothus. He describes 18 sites of egg findings. All eggs but one were whole when found. There is only at one site an egg has been found crushed in situ and this is also the only egg, until 1923, that was found at an archaeological site. This finding was made in the village of Yang Shao Tsuu, in the district of Mien Chih Hsien in the province of Honan. J. G Anderssons collection of eggs was left to dr. C. Wiman in Uppsala, Sweden, for research and description. Andersson mentions findings of eggs outside of China made in Cherson, Ukraine. In comparison with modern eggs of ostrich the Struthiolothus eggs are larger, the length of a modern egg is 160-164 mm and that of the ancient Struthiolothus is 168-186 mm. This indicates that the ancient Struthiolothus was somewhat larger than the modern one (Andersson 1923:57ff.). As Andersson comparative material was rather scares it would be good to make a new comparison.
In recent articles there are further reports on findings of fossil ostrich eggs in archaeological contexts. Fossil ostrich eggs have been found all the way from the African continent in the west to India, Siberia and China in the east (Bednarik 1993:34ff). The eggshells have been used as container vessels and as decoration parts in necklaces. In the Gobi-dessert and Northern China there are reports of burials with ostrich eggs or parts of eggshells endowed. Further findings have also been reported from Inner Mongolia at Hutouliang and in the southern parts of Siberia at Krasnji Jar in Trans Bajkal (Bednarik & You 1991:119ff).
We have found no interpretations of the eggshells found at Yang Shao Tsuu. Are there any other settlements in China where Struthiolothus eggs have been found? Is there a connection between the fossil eggs and the ancient Chinese myths concerning cosmic eggs? One of these myths is as follows:
In the beginning the cosmos was a gas that slowly solidified into a colossal stone. Out of a cosmic egg was born a creature named P’an-ku, who lived 18,000 years, growing at a rate of ten feet a day and spending his time chopping the stone into two parts, one of which became heaven and the other earth. When P’an-ku completed his labors and died, his eyes became the sun and the moon, his expiring breath the atmosphere, his bones mountains, his flesh soil, and his blood rivers and oceans. The fleas and lice on his body were ancestors of all living creatures on earth. (Hucker 1997:22)
This is but one of many creation myths concerning P’an-ku. They were written down during the first century AD. An interesting aspect of this particular variant of the myth is that P’an-ku is born from a cosmic egg and that his parents were nothing else than the cosmos.
What lies behind this solution of the problem concerning the creation of heaven and earth? Maybe the eggshell fragments found at Yang Shao Tsuu indicates that this was part of their beliefs. A very interesting question to pursue is the question why the eggshells were deposited at certain places, how widespread this phenomenon is? Is it a regional tradition that has only been practiced in certain areas? What function did this tradition have in the Yangshao culture? Are there any other fossil bones from other animals deposited within the Yangshao culture?
A widened insight in the Yangshao culture is essential to the understanding of their conceptual philosophy, and that is what we aim for. We will study the aspects of their culture that we find have not fully been enlightened. By this we hope to find new knowledge about the Yangshao culture and by this contribute to the discussion about the prehistory of China.
- Andersson, J. G. 1923. Essays on the cenozoic of northern China. Peking, China.
- Andersson, J. G. 1943. Research into the prehistory of the Chinese. Stockholm.
- Arne, T. J. 1945. Excavations at Sha Tepé. Stockholm.
- Barnes, Gina L. 1999. The Rise of civilization in East Asia. The archaeology of China, Korea and Japan. London, Great Britain.
- Bednarik, R. G. 1993. About Palaeolithic ostrich eggshell in India. Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association Bulletin 13.
- Bednarik, R. G. and You Yuzhu 1991. Palaeolithic art from China. Rock Art Research 8.
- Hucker, Charles O. 1997. Chinas Imperial past. Stanford, USA.
Written by Magnus Reuterdahl & Johan Klange 2005, Stockholm, Sweden.