Discoveries cast light on copper activity

Updated: Feb 1, 2024 By Xu Zhesheng China Daily Print
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The Shanxi provincial institute of archaeology recently revealed that significant discoveries have been made in Xiwubi village, with archaeologists unearthing oracle bones and mining tools, leading to a new theory that the area might have been a divination and copper smelting center during the Shang Dynasty (c.16th century-11th century BC).

The Xiwubi site is situated in the southern part of the village in Jiangxian county. It represents one of the largest, earliest and most specialized copper metallurgy sites known from the heartland of China's Xia (c.21st century-16th century BC) and Shang dynasties, according to the researchers.

They found that the smelting center focused on red copper production — with no evidence of bronze smelting — underscoring the early kingdom's wide control and regulation of copper metallurgy in southern Shanxi.

Dai Xiangming, the project leader for this archaeological endeavor, told China News Service that the Xiwubi site is exceptionally significant because "it stands out as a testament to early copper metallurgy and its role in shaping the region's history".

The absence of bronze metallurgy, which was prevalent at other important contemporary Shang archaeological sites, offers intriguing insights into the governance and oversight of copper production in the southern Shanxi region during the beginning of the Shang Dynasty, he said.

Archaeological work at the Xiwubi site is ongoing, with excavations conducted during the summer of 2020.

The working team uncovered cultural artifacts from various historical periods, including pieces depicting Erlitou culture, which existed in the Yellow River valley from approximately 1,900 to 1,500 BC in Erlitou in Yanshi, Henan province; and Erligang culture, which existed from roughly 1,600 to 1,400 BC in Zhengzhou Shang City, in present-day Zhengzhou, Henan.

Erlitou artifacts such as pottery, stone tools, bone implements and copper metallurgy-related items have been unearthed. Among the notable finds were copper smelting slag, copper ore and remnants of furnace walls.

The copper smelting slag exhibited an irregular shape and was tinged with the characteristic greenish-blue patina associated with copper oxidation. Copper ore pieces were similarly stained.

The furnace walls were primarily constructed from a mixture of grass and clay and often bore traces of copper smelting slag on their inner surfaces.

Similar copper metallurgy-related artifacts from the Erligang era have also been uncovered.

Additionally, tools associated with agricultural practices such as stone knives, sickles, hoes and axes were also discovered, suggesting that the Xiwubi site had a multifaceted economy that encompassed both copper metallurgy and agricultural production.

Dai, the head archaeologist, noted that the discovery of oracle bones is most likely related to divination activities that occurred during the copper metallurgy period. The bones might have been used for seeking guidance from deities on decisions related to the complex processes of copper production.

The discovery of mining tools also strengthens the connection between the Xiwubi site and the nearby Zhongtiaoshan copper mine.

Circular stone hammers, similar to those found in ancient copper mines in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region's Dajing and other regions, were also found.

This discovery underscores the significance of the Xiwubi site as a key node in the copper mining and metallurgical network of ancient China.

The findings at the Xiwubi site open a new window into the ancient practices of copper metallurgy, divination and economic activities in the Shanxi region, showing researchers a complex interplay of technological advancements and cultural practices during the early periods of Chinese civilization.

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