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24 October 2011
Neolithic tombs in China yield finely crafted jades

In 2006, archaeological excavations south of the Yangtze river near Hangzhou uncovered one of the earliest and largest walled cities of ancient China. The city was named Liangzhu, after a site where evidence of the associated culture was discovered decades before. Palace foundations, high class tombs, craft workshops, and artefacts were uncovered, dating to 3300-2250 BCE - the Late Neolithic period. Evidence suggests the culture practiced an advanced level of agriculture, including irrigation systems, aquaculture and paddy rice cultivation.
     Within the tombs, excavators found an abundance of ivory, lacquer, silk and remarkably sophisticated jade artefacts in what can only be described as the elite or royal burials of a highly stratified society. Long a symbol of high status in ancient Chinese civilisations, works of jade required enormous amounts of time, energy and patience to create, and sources for the stone are rare.
     The tombs contained jade bracelets, pendants, head ornaments and ceremonial axes. Some disks and bracelets are inscribed with rare pictographic symbols interpreted to signify clan ownership - often stylised birds in profile on a stepped geometric base containing solar symbols. Pendants are engraved with representations of small birds, turtles and fish.
     Thousands of finely carved and polished jade disks or 'bis' (pronounced 'bees') have been found - items far too large to be worn as body ornaments, always with one perfectly circular hole drilled into their centres - varying in size, workmanship, stone quality, and finish. Archaeologists suggest they likely signified religious, spiritual, social or military status. Finer examples were generally located closest to the body, whereas lesser quality or unfinished pieces were found in short stacks below the feet.
     Considered an innovation of the Liangzhu culture, 'congs' - decoratively carved cylindrical jades with square cross-sections and central, circular holes bored through them - were found in abundance, sometimes arranged in a circle around the body. Their workmanship suggests they too must have been connected to some ritual or status. The largest cong ever discovered weighs about 3.5 kilograms.
     The Liangzhu prehistoric legacy of jade use spread to other Neolithic cultures via China's river systems, and evidence can be found in early Bronze Age centres such as Anyang - capital of the Shang dynasty - as well as the material culture of later periods, such as that of the Han dynasty.

Edited from Popular Archaeology (17 October 2011)

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