Bronze Age Erlitou culture

Erlitou, here named Yanshi, at the confluence of two tributaries of the Yellow River (Wei and Yi) has given its name to the Erlitou – Bronze Age culture - of about 2000 to 1500.

Discovered in 1959, the site has large buildings and evidence of bronze smelting workshops. In Europe and western Asia archaeologists have used the term Bronze Age to indicate the introduction of metal working and bronze smelting from around 3000BC, before iron was adopted several millennia later. Since China continued to use bronze for weapons and ritual vessels the terms Bronze Age and Iron Age are less often used.

The geographical extent of the Erlitou culture - the great North Central China Plain that extends from the Yellow River in the north to the Yangtze in the south - corresponds to the area thought to have been controlled by the first dynasties of China, the Xia and the Shang.

Map showing the location of Yanshi

Plan of Erlitou site

The strategic position had attracted Neolithic settlements which are marked with arrows on this plan.

Plan of Erlitou site

Antiquity 81, 888

Reconstruction of an Erlitou Palace

A large building complex has been reconstructed as a palace.

Reconstruction  of an Erlitou Palace

Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology, p. 143

Reconstruction of Erlitou

Model - reconstruction of Erlitou

Antiquity 81, 890

Whether or not the Xia dynasty of legend existed and ruled from Erlitou, the site is large, well organised, technically accomplished and wealthy. It also began to change in the later 1500s when another site (to the east on a tributary (Huan) of the Yellow River) associated with the Shang Dynasty began to grow.

Plan - Palace no. 1

Antiquity 81, 892

Workshops were found at Erlitou for both bronze and turquoise.


Antiquity 81, 890

Erlitou bronze

The body of this wine vessel (Jue) was thin, the neck was decorated with a pattern.

Erlitou bronze

Erlitou pottery duck

A clay pouring vessel in the shape of a duck with 'feet' and patterning on the body to suggest plummage.

Erlitou pottery  duck

Erlitou bronze with turquoise inlaid animal faces

Turquoise is not found around Erlitou and must have been acquired through trade and exchange.

The bronze inlaid plaques are delicately made with the bronze strips outlining the animal face and the turquoise embedded in it. The one on the left was found on the chest of a man. The motif somewhat resembles the later taotie

Erlitou bronze  with turquoise inlaid animal faces

Tatoie motif on a Shang ding

an abstract monster-face motif found later on early bronze vessels such as this Shang ding.

Tatoie motif on a Shang ding

Xia territory

According to legend the Xia was the first dynasty, established by Yu the Great. The Xia territory covers land later held by the Shang Dynasty.

Xia  territory

Yu the Great gained power by finding ways to control the floods that threatened the river valley. He was commemorated in this much later painting on silk.

Yu the Great, Color on silkYu the Great, Colour on silk at the National Palace Museum

The nine provinces

He is also credited with creating the first nine provinces.

Map - The nine provinces

Erlitou road

Erlitou had large buildings that have been called palaces, a road system laid out in grids that preserves evidence of wheeled carts, and graves with the earliest known cast bronzes, as well as lacquer and turquoise.

Erlitou road

Erlitou dragon

In an undisturbed grave a dragon about 70 cms in length, made from about 2000 pieces of tourquoise, lay on the chest on a man who was about 35 years old and seems to have held a bell in his right hand.

Erlitou dragon

Erlitou turquoise dragon

The head of the dragon.

Shang dynasty territory

The Shang dynasty, once thought to be legendary like the Xia, seems to becoming more of a reality through excavation. Ruling from the 1500s to around 1050, their territory encompassed the Xia and enlarged it.