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Religion at Erlitou also known as “Religious development in prehistoric China”, “Capital of the Xia dynasty”, “Chinese early state religion”, “Religion in archaeology”, “Religious materiality” Liu, Ruiliang


The site of Erlitou is one of the most important sites for the study of the Bronze Age in central China (1800 BCE – 206 BCE). It was discovered by the well-known archaeologist Xu Xusheng in 1959, who led a team in search of the Xia capitals based on the later historical texts. Decades of excavations have yielded tremendously rich amounts of material remains, offering first-hand data for the analysis of the early development of technology, religion, social evolution, long-distance cultural communication and other key aspects of the Central Plains of China. It is often regarded as the beginning of the Bronze Age in central China, although bronze metallurgy was introduced via the Eurasia Steppe and performed in China in much earlier periods in the north and northwest. More importantly, it was Erlitou people who combined the newly arrived metallurgy with the long extant ceramic vessels and invented bronze ritual vessels, which distinguished China from all other parts of Eurasia and dominated the Chinese Bronze Age for nearly two thousand years. The abstract animal faces on these bronze ritual vessels, together with jades, dragon- shaped sceptres decorated with turquoise and other exotic objects or materials, indicates the presence of supernatural beings in the perception of the Erlitou people. Further indication comes from the large amount of human and animal sacrifices, sometimes neatly arranged in the ceremonial pits. There is also evidence oof divination, which used the cracks that resulted from firing the animal bones to predict the future, a tradition that was inherited from the late Neolithic periods and continued to the late Shang Anyang when oracle bones was widely discovered. Recent excavations reveal clear urban planning at Erlitou. The entire site (ca. 3 km2) had been divided into nine sections by two north-south roads and two east-west roads crossed with each other. Along the central north-south line, which becomes the one most important land marker in unban designing in later Chinese dynasties, lay the ritual/ceremonial section, palatial section and craft section. Various types of burials and rammed-earth mounds suggest large gatherings and that ritual or religious activities played a vital role in the social organization at Erlitou. Given the massive scale of organization and many pioneering achievements at Erlitou, there is no doubt that the ritual system played a critical part, within which a number of elements could be related to religion. Unfortunately, no sign of writing has yet been recovered, making it very challenging to distinguish ritual with religion or perform finer-grained research on various aspects of religion at Erlitou.

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