9 December 2015
Revering ancient gods on the roof of the world
Before Buddhism reigned supreme on the Tibetan Plateau, there prevailed a pantheon of gods closely aligned to the stars, moon, sun, planets, and celestial dragons. They were the deities of the ancient kingdom of Zhang Zhung, an advanced culture that dominated the western and northern region known as Upper Tibet.
For more than two decades, University of Virginia archaeologist and historian John Bellezza has been exploring highland central Asia, documenting scores of monumental sites, rock art, castles, temples, residential structures, and other features on the Tibetan Plateau.
"Upper Tibet of 1200 to 2500 years ago possessed a culture as advanced as any of its neighbours, at least in certain aspects," says Bellezza. "By many measures - monumental architecture, social complexity, irrigated agriculture, mining, and inter-regional trade - this was a civilised order, a constituent part of the wider civilisation of the Tibetan Plateau. This was a remarkable feat when we consider the great elevation [averaging more than 4,500 metres], geographic isolation and marginal climate of the region."
Bellezza describes this civilisation as flourishing from about 500 BCE to 625 CE. Mastering technology not normally attributed to peoples of this region, the people of Iron Age Zhang Zhung built citadels, elite residences, temples, necropolises, and a strong equestrian culture, established links with other cultures across Eurasia, and a cultural tradition rich in ritualistic religious practice, where kings and priests dominated the highest rungs of power - characteristics of stratified, centralised, and developed societies most often associated with the more southerly, lower-altitude Old World Bronze and Iron Age civilisations, and the advanced civilisations of Central and South America.
In addition to Bellezza's work, teams of archaeologists from China have excavated a handful of sites, Bellezza reveals: "Tombs excavated in Guge [a region in Upper Tibet] date from circa 500 BCE to 400 CE. Ornaments, implements, household items and ritual objects made of cast and worked bronze, copper, silver, gold and iron have been collected. Turned wooden bowls, ceramic vessels, stone weights, semiprecious stone beads, wool textiles, silks, bone, ivory, and numerous other materials have also been discovered."
Continuing work in this part of the world faces some challenges. Lack of an indigenous body of archaeologists in Tibet, the uncertain political environment, and the absence of a systematic catalog of the Plateau's archaeological sites and holdings are but a few. In addition, Bellezza warns that "heritage is disappearing at an alarming rate due to large-scale development and organised looting."
Nevertheless, he expresses hope. "A new generation of Chinese archaeologists, including those trained in the West, is eager to pursue exploration in Tibet... In the years to come, the continuing efforts should help us procure a better understanding of early civilisation in Tibet and its unique achievements in the world."
Edited from Popular Archaeology (24 November 2015)