Archaeologists working in China’s Zhejiang Province recently unearthed something ancient and extraordinary. While performing excavations at a site nea
Archaeologists working in China’s Zhejiang Province recently unearthed something ancient and extraordinary. While performing excavations at a site near the city of Ningbo on Hangzhou Bay, they found two pieces of wood that had been painted over with a thin layer of a slick, shiny, hard substance. They immediately recognized this as an early example of lacquerware, a form of decorative artwork that was invented in China at some time in the distant past.
What made this discovery so noteworthy is the age of the items found.
They were excavated in a site known as the Jingtoushan ruins, which were occupied by a previously undiscovered culture more than 8,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating tests proved that the two wooden items are artifacts from that culture, which makes them the oldest examples of lacquerware ever found in China. They predate the previous record holder (a red wooden bowl unearthed at an excavation at a Hemudu culture site) by about 1,500 years.
The two lacquered items were quite simple in design. One was a rounded stick with somewhat crudely sharpened ends. The other was a wedge-shaped object with two ridges carved into it at the top.
The two lacquered items excavated in the Jingtoushan ruins in China. ( Shine.cn)
“One of the lacquerware [the wedge] may be the remnants of a canoe or a part of the speaker of a musical instrument, while the other [the stick] should be used for weaving,” Sun Guoping, a researcher from the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, told the Xinhua News Agency . “They are both practical and ceremonial, representing the pursuit of exquisite life by ancient human beings.”
The most significant thing about these two items, Sun (the leader of the Jingtoushan archaeological team) said, is that their discovery extends the history of Chinese lacquerware back to before the year 6,000 BC.
A Brief History of Chinese Lacquerware
The rather unremarkable nature of these ancient lacquered objects confirms what is already known about the evolution of Chinese lacquering techniques . In the beginning, lacquering was not used for decoration, but for protection.
The resin that forms the base substance of the ancient lacquer came from a specific tree indigenous to China, known (appropriately enough) as the Lacquer tree. Based on its consistency and hardness after drying, the resin was used for waterproofing and/or to protect commonly used items from wearing and erosion.
Toxicodendron vernicifluum, commonly known as the Chinese lacquer tree. ( Public Domain )
Eventually, practitioners in the art of lacquering started adding substances that could change the lacquer’s appearance. They used metal shavings, rock scrapings, and pigments obtained from plant sources to create lacquers of many different colors.
Lacquering likely transitioned from protective uses to artwork gradually, over a period of centuries . Lacquering as an artform truly blossomed during the Shang Dynasty (1,600 BC to 1,050 BC), when skillfully designed and colorfully decorated lacquerware began to be produced in larger quantities.
The Shang culture was noted for its impressive artistic accomplishments in a broad range of fields, including sculpting, bronze work, ivory carving, jade carving, and ceramic pottery making. Lacquering techniques were especially flexible, allowing artists to work with diverse mediums including wood, bamboo, metal, ceramic, bone, and shell.
During the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), Chinese lacquerware was in high demand. It took a lot of time to create lacquerware, but its value made it worth the effort. Beautifully decorated lacquered vessels were highly coveted by wealthy traders both inside and outside China.
It was desired by art collectors and by those seeking attractive items for ceremonial uses or ancestral offerings. In this era the Asian trade in lacquerware flourished, as lacquered items made in China were eagerly sought by buyers in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and elsewhere in the region.
Lacquering has been practiced continually in China for thousands of years. The durability of lacquer has proven tremendously beneficial for archaeologists, who’ve been able to unearth extremely well-preserved lacquerware items dating to the time of every Chinese ruling dynasty.
The Jingtoushan Civilization Revealed: China’s Lacquering Pioneers
The site of the Jingtoushan ruins covers an area of approximately 26,000 square feet (8,000 square meters). It was discovered accidentally in 2013, by drillers performing a survey of an area where a factory was scheduled to be built. The site is located near the county-level city of Yuyao, which is under the jurisdiction of the municipality of Ningbo.
The Jingtoushan coastal site, which is just south of Hangzhou Bay on the East China Sea, is most noted for its deeply buried ancient shell mound. Radiocarbon dating has shown the latter to be between 7,800 to 8,300 years old, making it the oldest shell mound found at any archaeological site on Chinese soil.
Since serious excavations were launched in 2019, many other impressive artifacts have been found at Jingtoushan. Archaeologists have discovered pottery, stone tools, and various items made of wood, bone, and shells. Signs of early rice cultivation have been found, along with the remains of many different types of plants and animals native to both the land and the ocean. A thriving culture clearly existed at Jingtoushan 8,000 years ago, and it left a lot of evidence of its existence behind.
Pottery found at Jingtoushan. ( Insight Ningbo )
This is significant because it proves the coastal region of eastern China was settled much earlier than previously believed. Ruins from the Hemudu culture were found near Ningbo many years ago, and up to now it was believed this culture had been the first to settle in the Hangzhou Bay area. But the people who occupied the ancient settlement at Jingtoushan were there at least 1,000 years before the Hemudu people—and among other distinctions, it seems they were also the ones responsible for inventing the ancient Chinese art of lacquering, in its original, practical form.
Example of intricate lacquerware from the late Song Dynasty in China. Source: Public Domain
Top Image: Lacquerware from the Chinese Hemudu culture. (LukeLOU/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
By Nathan Falde