Silks from Han to Jin Period Found near Kyung-lung dngul-mkhar, the Capital of Ancient Xiang Xiong Kingdom in Ngari, Tibet
Although being one of the most active areas in the development and interaction of ancient cultures, Western Tibet is fraught with mystery especially before the dominance of Tubo Empire. The newly found Mkhar-gdong cemetery in Ngari not only provides a clue to locate the capital of Xiang Xiong Kingdom more precisely, but also helps greatly to establish a local cultural sequence.
The cemetery is located on the north bank of Sutlej River in Moincer Township, Gar County in Ngari District. Xinjiang-Tibet Highway passes by its vicinity connecting Lhasa and Yecheng in southwestern Xinjiang. It lies in front of a modern Bon monastery of Gur-gyam, which stands at the foot of the mountain west of the Kyung-lung dngul-mkhar, affirmed the capital of ancient Xiang Xiong Kingdom based on both local Bon adherents’ oral tradition as well as archaeological evidence. In 2006 an overloaded truck passed by the monastery, it sank into the earth where was proved to be a cave tomb. The monks of Gur-gyam excavated the cavity and assembled all outputs into the monastery hall and then built a small shelter over the tomb at the disposal of a local official. Although the excavation was not undertaken scientifically, the remaining tomb structure and artifacts still have significant academic value for studying the archaeological culture before imperial Tibet.
The tomb was found beneath the river’s silt and gravel, with a square pit containing a square casket-shaped wooden coffin and a well-preserved skeleton, however, whose burial pose is kept unknown. Burial artifacts include silk pieces with woven Chinese characters “Wang Hou” (King and Marquise) and patterns of birds and beasts, as well as lots of plain brown silk pieces, a U-shaped wooden comb, rectangular wooden trays, a wooden cosmetic box, a woven basketry, a wooden fire-lighting tool, a bronze kettle, a bronze bowel, a bronze cups with a ringed handle, a bronze dustpan with a wooden handle, a ceramic stemmed cup and a ceramic spouted cup.
Figured textiles with inscription “Wang Hou” and patterns of birds and beasts provide a basis for establishing dating of the tomb. It is a typical Han-manufacture, a warp-faced patterned silk with a dark blue ground and beige designs, measuring 44cm×25cm. This piece of cloth is said to have been used to wrap the deceased’s head, according to the monks, resembling the burial face cover found in southern Xinjiang. It has three horizontal registers of figures, each of which features different sets of zoomorphic ornamentation. There are also the remains of a border with a more abstract design. In the top register is a series of paired winged tigers, with mouth agape, and Ding tripods. The middle register is comprised of four fully intact compartments, each of which contains a pair of peacocks and a pair of what may be carnivores along a central axis framed by a pair of turtles and a pair of dragons, which altogether probably represent images of the Four Supernatural Beings (sishen) － Vermillion Bird, White Tiger, Black Turtle and Blue Dragon － which prevailed in ancient China to symbolize the four cardinal points. Two seal scripts Chinese characters “Wang Hou” and their mirror images are symmetrically placed in the in-between space. The lower register is dominated by a wavy pattern containing in each trough a pair of affronted waterfowls.
Silk with the same inscription and patterns have been found in Yingpan Cemetery in Yuli County and Astana Cemetery in Turfan, Xinjiang, dating back to between the 3rd and 4th century and to 455 AD respectively. The silk of the Mkhar-gdong cemetery could thus be set between the 4th and 5th century, which is strongly supported by C14 analysis undertaken by a foreign institution with the result as the 3rd or first half of the 4th century AD.
The burial form follows the tradition of slate grave pits in early western Tibet. The casket-shaped wooden coffin is identical with wooden coffins of Han and Jin periods from Niya, Yingpan and Khotan area, which must result from influences from the latter. Other artifacts also show such trend, such as the U-shaped wooden comb, wooden cup and woven basketry and wooden fire-lighting tool, which bear strong similarities to those from Han and Jin periods in Loulan and Khotan area. Some large-sized bronze and iron objects may come from localities with mature metallurgy like Khotan and Luopu.
Excavation of silk with Chinese inscription “Wang Hou” and metals are indicative of a high rank of the tomb. From its location and dating, it must be related closely to the ancient Xiang Xiong capital of Kyung-lung dngul-mkhar. Though we cannot conclude this tomb as a noble tomb, there is no doubt that it provides a clue for seeking the accurate location of Kyung-lung dngul-mkhar. The silk unearthed is the earliest ever found in whole Tibetan Plateau. Cultural characteristics and living ways reflected by the burial objects are very similar to that in southern Xinjiang during the Han and Jin periods. The cultural connections between the two regions are evident and thereby factors of Han culture are indirectly input to Western Tibet. It is possible to take this traffic and cultural relation into the study of the Silk Road archaeology. This region could therefore be regarded, very possibly, as a branch of the southern route of the Silk Road toward the Tibetan Plateau. The cemetery with well preserved rich burials is not isolated, indicative of further possible abundant archaeological findings.