Tian Jianwen: 38-year commitment to Shanxi archaeology

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2021-12-16

Archaeologist Tian Jianwen (Middle) and his colleagues at the Baliping site in Qinshui County, Shanxi Province Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

In the early stage of reform and opening up, there was a shortage of young talent, and college students were viewed as a national treasure. In 1980, Tian Jianwen was admitted to Peking University at age 15. After graduation, he passed up job opportunities in big cities and went to Houma [a small town in Shanxi province], home to Xintian, the last capital of the Jin principality (1033–376 BCE) of the Western Zhou Dynasty. Tian [now a veteran archaeologist at the Shanxi Archaeology Institute] has been engaged in archaeological work there ever since.

Having worked at the forefront of archaeology for about 38 years, Tian has made remarkable achievements. The Zaoyuan site [at Yicheng County] discovered by Tian and his colleagues was identified as the earliest Neolithic ruins found in Shanxi province. Based on this discovery, Tian came up with a complete genealogy dated from the Zaoyuan Culture to the Xiyin Culture [an early Neolithic site in Shanxi Province] periods. He studied the Houma ruins of the Jin principality and put forward the Jin principality’s “Xintian Pattern” [the layout of the Xintian city was different from that of previous cities]. For the first time, he identified tombs of the Xiongnu [nomadic people who inhabited the eastern Eurasian Steppe from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE] in the Lüliang Mountains. This confirmed the theory that, since the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BCE), the Han Empire had set up county-level residences for the Xiongnu people who surrendered to the Han Empire and migrated to the Central Plain, and the leaders of those people were given noble titles by the Han rulers.

Tian presided over the excavation of Qiujiazhuang Tomb No. 1 at Wenxi County, which is the largest tomb dated to the Eastern Zhou period (770–256 BCE) excavated in Shanxi Province thus far. He also investigated and unearthed the ancient city of Shangguo, which is of great significance to the historical research of the Jin culture.

CSST: In recent years, many scholars have proposed that the significance of archaeology is to “write Chinese history” and “trace the path of ancestors.” How do you understand these statements?

Tian Jianwen: Ancient archives, oral traditions, and archaeological studies are three methods of recording history. Each has its own characteristics, advantages, and research methods. There is a lack of comparability between the three methods and it’s not necessary to verify one by another. Using archaeological discoveries to verify certain details in ancient archives and folklore is insignificant. The object of archaeological research is archaeological culture. Remains composed of ruins and relics can also be called archaeological culture. Genealogical analysis method, can help clarify the date and existence of different relics and ruins, as well as the existence and degree of variation of the same relics and ruins at different times. This is writing Chinese history, which is also the foundation of the “theoretical system of archaeology with Chinese characteristics.” “Tracing the path of ancestors” is a poetic expression. Archaeology is not as obscure as some people think. It also has something romantic.

CSST: In early May 1991, when you were investigating the Zaoyuan site in Shanxi, a calf was provoked and dug into the ground. It kicked up a garbage dump, revealing a few red pottery shards. These pottery shards dated to 7,000 years ago. The site was therefore identified as the earliest Neolithic site in Shanxi thus far. Could you tell us about other significant discoveries in your career?

Tian Jianwen: Since the 1970s, ancient cultural relics dated to 10,000 years ago have been discovered in Jiangxi, Hunan, Guangxi, and Zhejiang provinces in south China, as well as Shandong, Hebei, Henan, and Shaanxi provinces in the north. In Shanxi, however, there had been no similar archaeological discoveries for a long time, except for a slab and an elongated handstone [a set of grinding stones of the Cishan culture, dated from 8,000 to 7,600 years ago] found at Wuxiang County in 1984. So I conducted many investigations in Houma.

On May 11, 1991, my colleagues Xue Xinmin, Yang Linzhong, and I discovered the Zaoyuan site in Yicheng County. Initially, we named it the “Zaoyuan H1 Remains,” as we regarded it as the predecessor of Miao-digou culture [c. 4005–2780 BCE]. Later, it was officially named “Zaoyuan Culture,” which means that in the study of early Neolithic culture, Shanxi had its own archaeological culture. This discovery led to a wave of re-examining the relationship between Banpo culture [a culture which existed between 6700 and 6000 BCE, located near Xi’an, Shaanxi Province] and Miao-digou culture of the Yangshao era [a Neolithic culture that existed along the Yellow River between 5000 BCE and 3000 BCE; the Banpo and Miao-digou periods represent two different phases of the Yangshao culture] in the field of Chinese archaeology.

In the winter of 2016, Pu County [in Shanxi Province] was freezing cold and snowed frequently. My colleague Mu Wenjun and I excavated the Caojiazhuang site at an altitude of more than 1,000 meters in Pu County. As soon as the tomb covered with stone slabs appeared, Mu immediately realized the importance of this discovery. We excavated 42 tombs. After analyzing the funerary rituals, such as animals buried with the deceased, by using genealogical methods, we identified 24 shaft tombs that belonged to the natives during the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), and the Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties. We also found that 17 cave-chamber tombs built after the reign of Emperor Wu of Han belonged to the subordinates of Marquise Qi, or Juji [a Xiongnu cavalry officer who fought for the Han Empire against the Xiongnu army]. The Caojiazhuang site was therefore confirmed as the southeasternmost habitat of the Xiongnu in China, which was further supported by human bone identification.

However, we didn’t find any narrow-necked pots with holes near the bottom—a typical artifact of the Xiongnu culture. It made us doubt whether there were Xiongnu cultural remains in the southern part of the Lüliang Mountains. With these questions, we started to do archaeological research in Pu County, Daning, Yonghe, and other counties from the winter of 2016.

On May 25, 2017, we went to the Juzi site in Xi County. The tombs there have been robbed many times. Fortunately, we found a ceramic pot with an inscription of the character “上” on the shoulder and holes near the bottom in a villager’s yard. Similar artifacts have been discovered from the Xiongnu cultural remains at the Xigoupan site in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Shenmu Dabaodang city ruins in Shaanxi Province. Finally, the historical existence of Xiongnu people and Xiongnu culture in this region was confirmed. Taking the ceramic pots with small round holes as a clue, we found that similar pots were also discovered at the Yonghe Longtunquan site [in Shanxi] in 2002. The final conclusion is that these pots were remains of the Xiaorouzhi people [the Rouzhi were ancient nomadic pastoralists living in the Hexi Corridor during the 1st millennium BCE; after a major defeat by the Xiongnu in 176 BCE, the Rouzhi split into two groups migrating in different directions: the Darouzhi who migrated northwest and Xiaorouzhi who migrated southward] who migrated from the Qilian Mountains to present-day Yonghe County after the reign of Emperor Wu of Han. A king of the Xiaorouzhi, named Yuzhe, surrendered to the Han and was given the title of Marquise Hunie. The Hunie County he ruled is located in present-day Yonghe County.

CSST: Have you made any new archaeological discoveries recently?

Tian Jianwen: From August 2018 to June 2019, my colleagues and I excavated Qiujiazhuang Tomb No. 1, the largest Eastern Zhou grave in Shanxi Province. According to our study, the one who was buried in Tomb No. 1 may be a lady of the upper aristocracy [perhaps a Jin ruler’s wife] who lived in the Jin state during the early Warring States period. As the tomb has been robbed many times, we didn’t find any bronze ritual artifacts. All the unearthed items were small artifacts made of ceramic materials, bronze, iron, gold, jade, stone, shell, bone, etc.

In 2021, we excavated and explored the Shangguo ancient city ruins, which covers an area of over 400,000 square meters. It was where ancient Quwo, another political, military, economic, and cultural center of the Jin state, was located. This year, we conducted archaeological excavations at the remains of the northern city wall and a small area in the northwest corner of the ancient city. A large number of unearthed tiles and relics used for bronze casting that dated to the early Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) greatly promoted the study of Jin culture. As ancient Quwo used to be the largest city of the Jin state, even larger than Yi city, the capital city of Jin. Later, a major historical event that deeply impacted the Jin state occurred. From 739 to 678 BCE, all three successive rulers of Quwo made attempts to take over Jin. In 678 BCE, Duke Wu of Quwo conquered Jin and killed Marquis Min of Jin. One year later, he was made the legal ruler of Jin, who became known as Duke Wu of Jin. His son, Duke Xian of Jin, enlarged the Jin capital, while ancient Quwo still remained the second largest city of Jin, and played a pivotal role in Jin’s history.

CSST: What advice do you have for young scholars?

Tian Jianwen: My experiences tell me that [the best way to study archaeology may be] memorizing classic works of archaeological research, keeping typical archaeological artifacts in mind, and reading archaeological reports and original historical texts as often as possible. It may be difficult at first, but things will get easier as you keep at it.

In October 2021, Jilin University Press published An Outline of Chinese Archaeology: A Century of Discovery and Research (1921–2021) written by Professor Zhao Binfu, dean of the School of Archaeology at Jilin University. The bibliography of this book provides a list of archaeological classics, which I recommend for young scholars to read.

Having worked at the forefront of archaeology for many years, my feeling is that although China’s century-old modern archaeology has been given a higher profile, there is still a lack of professionals performing fieldwork in archaeology. The talent shortage does not seem to match the current popularity of archaeology. This is a big issue that requires joint efforts. We need to work together, create better environments, and cultivate more professionals in archaeology, so as to carry on the essential work of primary-level archaeology.

Editor:Yu Hui

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