The archaeological site at Erlitou in Yanshi County of Luoyang has been linked with the semi-mythical Xia dynasty’s (ca. BCE2100-BCE1600) last capital, Zhenxun. While in Luoyang we learned that the local authorities are planning to open a major new museum at the Erlitou, devoted to the Xia. The museum will not open for several years but work has already started.
While the antiquity of Erlitou culture (BCE1750 to BCE1530) has long been known, it was previously controversial whether it could be linked with the Xia dynasty, or even the subsequent dynasty the Shang. However, in 2016 the Chinese authorities declared that they had ‘settled’ that Erlitou was indeed for a time a Xia capital, even though the reason for this classification was not clear to us.
While questions remain about the association of Erlitou culture with the last Xia capital of Zhenxun, what cannot be denied is the richness of the archeological record. The Erlitou exhibition hall at the Luoyang Museum includes many striking white pottery jue (爵,drinking vessels) which would have been used by nobles. Signs appear on some artefacts, although these are not considered as a fully formed script. Perhaps one of the most affecting artefacts was a large stone frog whose intricate puffy eyes and fleshy face really brought us into contact with the minds of its creator.
The debate about the dynastic associations of Erlitou may be largely semantic. It is clear that this was a significant culture located both chronologically and developmentally between earlier neolithic cultures and the later Shang dynasty. At its height the city is thought to have had a population of around 20,000-24,000 people. The palace site unearthed at Eritou is the oldest found in China and has features that are a template for all later palace sites in China including the Forbidden City in Beijing. This suggests it was a significant centre of power that cast a shadow through time.