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Origin of the Hsiung-nu


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Origin of the Hsiung-nu


Another major problem of Hsiung-nu history is the origin of the Hsiung-nu themselves and the early stages of their history, which remain obscure to this day. The great historiographer of old China, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, remarked only that, " the Hsiung-nu descended from Shun-wei, a scion of the Xia rulers family". The evidence of written sources alone is not sufficient to resolve the above problem. More information is offered by archaeological sources, first and foremost the new cemeteries in Russia, that let us form a new opinion about this issue.

The Hsiung-nu burials are, as a rule, individual, supine, with the limbs extended and, in the 90 percent of cases, oriented toward the north. They can be divided into several groups:

  1. those at the level of the earliest horizon with no inner grave or over-grave structure,
  2. in a pit,
  3. in a pit with a coffin and no over-grave structure,
  4. in a pit with a coffin placed in a timber frame and no over-grave structure
  5. in a pit with a wooden coffin placed in a stone cyst and an over-grave stone setting,
  6. in a pit with a coffin placed in a timber frame and with an over-grave setting,
  7. in a pit up to 10-15 m. deep with drums, a coffin, a timber frame and a several-log-high chamber. This chamber is enclosed in a square stone setting of large size, with the pit partitioned by four or five stone walls throughout its depth. In the three latter groups the coffin or the timber frame are often lined with vertical stone slabs, and in some instances the pit is filled with similar slabs.

Burial with different types of structures are found next to each other and in some cases form chronologically integral complexes. The grave goods from different burials are typologically inseparable and give no ground for chronological classification. The main types of the Hsiung-nu burial structures have nothing to do with the sex or age composition of the population.

The different types of Hsiung-nu burials, differing in the degree of complexity of their burial structures and the wealth of their grave goods, reflect the social differentiation within Hsiung-nu society of the 2nd- 1st Century B. C. If correct, this conclusion will make it possible, to chart a path towards identifying a group of burials belonging, possibly to the "early" Hsiung-nu ("proto-Hsiung-nu").

Rich burials of nobility with complicated structures (groups 6 and 7) cannot be considered characteristic of the Hsiung-nu burial practice as a whole, since they merely reflected the isolation of the nobles and the privileged strata and complexity of the social structure in the period of the Hsiung-nu dominion, beginning with the turn of the 2nd Century B. C. The structure of these rich burials of the Hsiung-nu nobles is a copy of the rich tombs of Han nobles.

After the digs of the Derestuy cemetery, it is perfectly clear that the burials of 1-4 groups, too, cannot be considered characteristic of the Hsiung-nu burial practice. In Derestuy cemetery and other cemeteries of the Hsiung-nu the burials of these types are situated around central barrows (the "satellite-burials" ) and the deceased in these burials were sacrificed. One can see that the "satellite-burials" are not the graves of the Hsiung-nu themselves (the Hsiung-nu could not kill each other Hsiung-nu for sacrifice).

So, the "proto-Hsiung-nu" sites can be expected to be close or analogous in the sum total to the main features of the ordinary graves of Hsiung-nu during the period of their domination of Central Asia. Judging by these ordinary graves of the 2nd - 1st Centuries B. C., the main elements of those "early" structures should be the pit and the inner grave structure in the form of a wooden coffin placed in a stone cyst and sometimes a small over-grave structure in the form of a stone setting.

It is yet difficult to identify sites that can be characterized as those of the "proto-Hsiung-nu" in the Inner Asian part of the steppe zone, and all the more difficult in Altai and Southern Siberia. The archaeological cultures of these regions have sets of indications, which differentiate them from the Hsiung-nu culture.

At the moment "Ordos hypothesis" of the origin of the Hsiung-nu is popular. Chinese archaeologists identify Ordos archaeological sites of Scythian time (Maozinggou, Budungou etc.) and sites of "proto-Hsiung-nu". But archaeological sites of the Ordos have other indications, different from Hsiung-nu: other burial structures, orientations etc.

A basis of this hypothesis is the text "Historical Records" by Ssu-ma Ch'ien, and the text " Han History" by Ban Gu. These texts tell, that in the period of the Qin dynasty the Hsiung-nu were banished from their homeland to the north and that after the downfall of Qin the Hsiung-nu returned to the region "south of the river" (Ordos plateau). But there are some contradictions between the text by Ssu-ma Ch'en and the text by Ban Gu and some mistakes in the text by Ssu-ma Ch'en. After a detailed analysis of the texts "Historical Records" and "Han History" one can assume that, in fact, the homeland of the Hsiung-nu in the period of Warring States was situated in the north regions of states Zhao and Jan.

The data of archaeology correspond with this hypothesis. If one turns to Scythian sites in the Far Eastern steppes, one can see that one more zone of the Scythian world existed in the region of old south and south-west Manchuria. The burials of the region (in Nan-chan-gen, Zhou-tzia-di, Tzun-du-chan and some burials deep in the upper stratum of the Xiaziadian settlement) have some common characteristics: the position of the dead was predominantly extended supine; a wooden coffin was inside the rectangular pit, the short walls of which were inserted into the long ones; the coffin was covered with stone slabs and the walls of the pit were lined with similar slabs. Like "rank-and-file" Hsiung-nu burials, those graves had bronze buttons, zoomorphic plaques, small bells and imitation cowrie shells inside. Some types of the Hsiung-nu grave goods, especially the shifted three-bladed arrows and the flat shear-arrows made of iron, can be regarded as a result of the development of similar bronze arrows from the above-mentioned Scythian burials. It is noteworthy that the shape and weight of those arrows bespeak the use of a big bow, apparently, approaching the Hsiung-nu bow in size.

To sum up, it is precisely the Scythian-time burials of the south and south-west Manchuria, among all the sites of the Scythian period known at present in the east of the steppe zone, that manifest to the fullest extent the set of "proto-Hsiung-nu" characteristics. Thus is possible to outline the probable region of the early stages of Hsiung-nu history and to pin-point the sites, the detailed analysis of which is of prime importance in resolving the problem of the origin of Hsiung-nu.

Corrected by Barbara Hazard