When Chinese farmers over the years came across odd bones and shells in fields 300 miles south of Beijing, the relics often ended up in markets, sold as herbal medicine or "dragon bones," boasting magical properties. But when a scholar noticed that one such shell, known as an oracle bone, also contained the script of an ancient writing system, the dramatic finding led to something just as magical—the rediscovery of an advanced civilization 3,000 years old.

It took a while for the development of archaeology to catch up with and fully explore the 1899 discovery of Anyang, the capital of China’s Shang dynasty from about 1250 B.C.E. to 1050 B.C.E. But when it did, the site of the country’s earliest surviving written records also became known as the birthplace of Chinese archaeology.

Storage jar unglazed white pottery, early Anyang period, c. 1200 B.C.E.
An unglazed white pottery storage jar, early Anyang period, c. 1200 B.C.E. Freer Gallery of Art, Charles Lang Freer Endowment, SI

It did so in conjunction with a young institution in the United States capital—the newly established Freer Gallery of Art, the country’s first national art museum, which was largely filled with Asian art and had opened in 1923 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

When China’s Academia Sinica—an organization not unlike the Smithsonian Institution—began its dig at the site, its leader was a staff member of the Freer, Li Chi, who rose to become a prominent Chinese archaeologist. To help promote archaeology in China, the Freer—now a part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art—supported Li Chi’s consequential initial two seasons of work at Anyang in 1929.

Bronze ritual wine containers with dragons
Two bronze ritual wine containers decorated with dragons and other animals, late Anyang period, c. 1100-1050 B.C.E. (right) and late Anyang period or early Western Zhou period, c. 1050 B.C.E. National Museum of Asian Art

Helping to mark its own 100th anniversary, the National Museum of Asian Art is presenting the exhibition “Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings,” the first major show in the U.S. dedicated to the ancient city. With more than 200 artifacts and striking digital projections of the original excavation, the exhibition paints a picture of life in the Bronze Age city and celebrates the museum’s part in helping to uncover it.

“I proposed this show for the centennial primarily because of the Freer’s involvement in those early seasons at the site in 1929,” says J. Keith Wilson, the museum’s curator of ancient Chinese art, who curated the exhibition. “It just seemed like the perfect kind of centennial tie-in.”

Group of ritual wine pouring vessels
A group of ritual wine-pouring vessels decorated with masks, dragons and animals from the middle and late Anyang period, circa 1150 to 1100 B.C.E. National Museum of Asian Art

Charles Lang Freer, the industrialist who founded the museum by donating his vast art collection to the U.S., had already purchased pieces dated to the late Shang period as early as 1911, even before the archaeological site had been formally identified, Wilson says.

At the time, very little was known of the ancient kingdom. “There was a sense of: Was this mythology? How factual is it?” Wilson says.

When the inaugural archaeological team, led by Li Chi, arrived, Wilson says, “they asked the local people, ‘Where are you finding the dragon bones?’ And they pointed them to a location, and they started digging.”

Elephant vessels
Two bronze spouted vessels in the form of an elephant, late Anyang period, c. 1100 B.C.E. (left) and Middle Yangzi River region, c. 1150-1100 B.C.E. National Museum of Asian Art

The bones, of course, were not from dragons—“99.9 percent of them are animal bones and shells,” Wilson says. “The shoulder blades of oxen, basically, and the bottom shells of turtles that have these inscriptions.” Importantly, the inscriptions on them are extensively developed, suggesting that Chinese written language predated the Shang dynasty at Anyang.

“It’s a fully formed language with the grammar and everything else, a vocabulary of thousands of characters,” Wilson says. “Anyang probably is recognized as the cradle of writing chiefly because it’s written on durable media, whereas previously it might have been written, who knows, on wooden slips or palm leaves.”

Bronze spouted vessel and basin
A bronze spouted vessel with dragons and a basin with dragons, fish, birds and felines from early or middle Anyang period, c. 1200-1150 B.C.E. National Museum of Asian Art

That durable media was bone, but also bronze—and Anyang was home to foundries turning out exquisite pieces that remain in astonishingly good shape even after three millennia.

The official royal burial tombs had long since been plundered over the centuries. “I’m guessing the day after the Shang dynasty fell, the subsequent Zhou dynasty troops were plundering at the site,” Wilson says. “The royal burial sites may have been identified with ancestral halls built above them, so they knew where to look.”

Bronze ritual wine containers
Bronze ritual wine containers and a pouring vessel with decorations that include masks, dragons, tigers, waterfowl and owls National Museum of Asian Art

But some newly found, previously undisturbed areas away from the royal cemeteries offered a fresh look at what life there was like. “It took a while to find the right locations,” Wilson says of the 1929 team. But a site north of the central village at the bend of a river looked promising. “That’s where they develop the modern archaeological practice of parallel trenching,” he says, describing the field technique of digging out rows at regular intervals to uncover masonry walls. “And through that approach, they start to find building foundations, they start to find workshops, they’re starting to find signs of elite habitation.”

“It’s kind of an evolving story,” Wilson says. “And think of it, too: This is their first experience doing archaeology. So it’s really interesting to read their own daily log of this period as they’re trying to figure out how to mine and map a site this large, where you’re walking in blind.”

Group of early Anyang bronze ritual vessels
Group of early Anyang bronze ritual vessels, c. 1250-1200 B.C.E.  National Museum of Asian Art

The work, in maps, pictures and some film, comes to life on four different screens at the beginning of the exhibition, the work of the innovative production studio Unit9. “The synchronicity of this was early on something they suggested, so we’d tell the story across these four surfaces simultaneously as opposed to kind of a random selection of things just flashing up,” Wilson says.

In an eight-minute narrative, “all the surfaces are working together to tell you the story of what’s going on in that moment at that place.”

Recently, one of the biggest discoveries was a previously undisturbed tomb of a queen that was not in the royal cemetery site but closer to the palace. “Because her tomb was unlooted, it gave us almost a time capsule of what kings and queens would have been surrounded with in their lifetime,” he says.

That includes exquisite ceremonial weapons encrusted with jade. “Jade is such a brittle material, there’s no practical reason for making a day-to-day tool out of it,” Wilson says. “These are all ceremonial versions of practical weapons and tools, and must have been made for display.”

A pair of rare essentially intact whiteware ceramics show the use of imported clay. An array of bronze vessels are elaborately decorated with dragons and masks. A hands-on exhibit demonstrates how the bronzes were cast, suggesting the sheer productivity of the ancient culture.

“They’re producing at such an industrial scale,” Wilson says. “The material has been collected for thousands of years, and we still have a few 100 examples just in our collection, so you get a sense of what the output of the foundries must have been.”

Each is worth a lingering look given their intricate design, some of which bring to mind modern-day figures. Pointing to a bottle-horned dragon that seems the very image of Shrek, the animated ogre from the 2001 film, Wilson jokes, “We should get royalties, because it looks so similar.”

In addition to the detailed, fanciful shapes of vessels, the Anyang works feature important examples of early writing. While not as expansive as the paragraphs found on oracle bones, many of the pieces feature brief inscriptions. “It shows again that writing is important at this time. Pre-Anyang bronzes don’t have inscriptions, whereas Anyang bronzes do,” Wilson says. “So there’s something about this site, and something about this time that writing is rising in importance and you’re using it on durable media unknown before.”

Anyang today is a teeming city of 5.5 million people, where frenzied building projects are often put on hold when ancient artifacts are found. Fresh dig sites might be surrounded by looming apartment buildings on all sides. “Unlike other places in China that are more rural, where proper, old-fashioned archaeology can take place, Anyang is not one of those places,” Wilson says.

But new old things are still being found, and at a time when U.S.-China relations are fraught, “Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings” highlights an era of international cooperation and discovery. “Since the story is really built on this moment in the 1920s when there was close institutional collaboration,” Wilson says, “I’m hoping it’s a little bit of a positive bridge.”

“Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings” continues through April 2024 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C.

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