Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

April 2012

John Vincent Bellezza

Welcome to a special Flight of the Khyung! This month we take you to what may have been the greatest capital of the Zhang Zhung kingdom. We will examine hard chronological evidence and its implications for understanding the cultural makeup of Upper Tibet centuries before its annexation by King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century CE.

A major center of civilization in Upper Tibet, circa the 3rd century CE

On the UTRAE II, I visited Gurgyam (Gur-gyam) again, a Bon monastery in southwestern Tibet. I have been a regular visitor since 1986. In that year, the late Tenzin Wangdrak Rinpoche led me around the site and shared his plans for rebuilding the monastery and retreat center. His efforts proved an admirable success. Gurgyam is located in the upper Sutlej River valley, at the foot of a colorful earthen formation pockmarked with caves. In the environs of this scenic religious center are a number of archaeological sites of great importance. Among these is Khardong (Mkhar-gdong), a large ruined citadel situated atop a mesa standing little more than a kilometer away from Gurgyam.

In the 1930s, Gurgyam was identified as the ancient capital of the Zhang Zhung kingdom by the famous Bon lama Khyungtrul Jikme Namkha Dorje. Known as Khyunglung Ngulkhar (Khyung-lung dngul-mkhar) in Tibetan literary sources, this capital and other Zhang Zhung sites are closely associated with early religious practitioners called bon-po. That such a large and strategically important citadel was established at Khardong seems to support its identification with Khyunglung Ngulkhar. However, there is not yet sufficient evidence to pronounce Khardong the capital of Zhang Zhung. That said, the textual and archaeological evidence is compelling, making Khardong the best candidate we have for Khyunglung Ngulkhar. As for the name ‘Zhang Zhung’, it can be traced back to 8th to 10th century CE texts written in Old Tibetan. From these and later sources we cannot be sure that the culture, language and polity of prehistoric western Tibet were actually called Zhang Zhung. Be that as it may, for more than a millennium, parts or most all of Upper Tibet has been assigned this toponym in Tibetan literature.

Ascertaining the political character of Zhang Zhung from Old Tibetan and Bon sources has been undertaken by various Tibetologists. These literary accounts often speak of a powerful territory ruled by various kings, a set of eighteen of which are supposed to have possessed horned headdresses. Motivated often by sectarian and ideological calculations, many of these textual sources are very difficult to assess historically. We are left with a body of dramatic legends and myths, that undoubtedly contain bits of history, but to pick and choose between them is a tall order. It is only through the archaeological record that we have any hope of accurately appraising what has been written.

For those not familiar with my work on Khardong and its possible connections to Khyunglung Ngulkhar, see:

1) Flight of the Khyung (May, 2011). http://www.tibetarchaeology.com/may-201l/

2) Antiquities of Upper Tibet (Delhi: Adroit Publishers), 2002.

3)  “gShen-rab Myi-bo” in Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 19 (http://www.himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ret/pdf/ret_19_03.pdf), 2010.

 4) “Territorial Characteristics of the Pre-Buddhist Zhang-zhung Paleocultural Entity” in Emerging Bon (ed. H. Blezer), pp. 51–113. (Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies), forthcoming.

Also see the following articles by two other archaeologists who have surveyed the site:

5) Li Yongxian’s “Archaeological Survey of ‘Khyung Lung Silver Castle’ in Western Tibet” in Emerging Bon (ed. H. Blezer), pp. 35–52. (Halle), forthcoming.

6) Mark Aldenderfer and Holly Moyes’ “In the Valley of the Eagle: Zhangzhung, Kyunglung and the Pre-Buddhist sites of Far Western Tibet” (http://www.penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/PDFs/47-2/In%20the%20Valley.pdf).

In 2006, in the plain below the Gurgyam monastery, an opulent burial was unearthed by resident monks. These good friars have gone through extraordinary measures to recover and conserve the human and material remains from this burial. I first reviewed this exceptional tomb find in the October 2010 issue of Flight of the Khyung. There is much research that needs to be conducted if we are to better understand the physical and cultural components of the burial. A battery of archaeometric tests and analyses is required, ranging from the forensic to the radiological and dendrochronological. This current newsletter is merely another introductory report on the Gurgyam tomb, which is written to give some direction and context to future studies.

As noted in the October 2010 newsletter, the AMS dating of a piece of a femur recovered from the Gurgyam inhumation has yielded a calibrated date of 220–350 CE. Analyzing the conventional and calibrated dates along with the intercept data indicates that this burial was most likely made in the second half of the 3rd century CE. Many of the grave goods from the Gurgyam burial must be from this same general period. Others may be somewhat earlier if they were in the possession of the deceased long term as special possessions or heirlooms.

Fig. 1. The discovery of this patterned silk in the Gurgyam burial created quite a sensation in the international academic community. The learned comments of experts pertaining to it are found in the October 2010 newsletter.

Fig. 1. The discovery of this patterned silk in the Gurgyam burial created quite a sensation in the international academic community. The learned comments of experts pertaining to it are found in the October 2010 newsletter.

In 2011, I learned that the Gurgyam silk has been placed between two plates of glass and sealed with masking tape. Earlier I thought that the silk rested directly against the wood backing of a picture frame, providing some ventilation. I recommended to the monk conservators at Gurgyam that they remove the silk from its current receptacle and store it in a roomy plain brown cardboard or unpainted/untreated wooden box between pieces of handmade Tibetan paper, and placed in the same secure location. This would protect the extremely delicate textile from moisture, static charges, chemical contamination, and frictional wear. The monks were receptive to what I had to say, and said that they will seek approval from local government officials to store the artifact as specified.

Fig. 2.  A close-up view of confronted waterfowl woven in the Gurgyam silk. What appears to be a pair of ducks or geese stand within wave and floral-like purfle. These motifs are beige in color while the ground is a rich indigo blue.

Fig. 2. A close-up view of confronted waterfowl woven in the Gurgyam silk. What appears to be a pair of ducks or geese stand within wave and floral-like purfle. These motifs are beige in color while the ground is a rich indigo blue.

Fig. 3. Center: a pair of peacocks and a pair of what appear to be carnivores. Flanking these animals are other zoomorphic pairs. Small linear designs in pairs can also be seen in the image. Some experts believe that these are Chinese characters, but they observe that the ideograms appear to be non-standard or distorted in form.

Fig. 3. Center: a pair of peacocks and a pair of what appear to be carnivores. Flanking these animals are other zoomorphic pairs. Small linear designs in pairs can also be seen in the image. Some experts believe that these are Chinese characters, but they observe that the ideograms appear to be non-standard or distorted in form.

In an online article by Tang Tao, he holds that the patterned Gur-gyam silk is of typical Han manufacture.* This position is also taken by certain foreign experts quoted in the October 2010 “Flight of the Khyung”. Nonetheless, there are dissenting voices in that newsletter, who view the cultural and historical background of the silk as being potentially a good deal more complicated than merely a Han dynasty import. In his article, Tong Tao thinks that silks with the same ‘inscription’ and patterns have been found in the Yingpan and Astana cemeteries of the Taklamakan basin. These sites date to the 3rd to 5th centuries CE. Tong Tao then concludes that the silk of Gurgyam dates to the 4th or 5th century CE. However, as the Gurgyam silk must per force predate the time of the burial, a date in the second half of the 4th century or 5th century CE cannot be entertained ( as discussed, a second half of the 3rd century CE attribution is most likely).

* “Silks from Han to Jin Period Found near Kyung-lung dngul-mkhar, the Capital of Ancient Xiang Xiong Kingdom in Ngari, Tibet” in Chinese Archaeology,  Institute of Chinese Archaeology Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, posted on October 17, 2011. http://www.kaogu.cn/en/detail.asp?ProductID=3120)

I will offer a few observations concerning the Gurgyam silk, but hasten to add that I am no expert in ancient textiles. This is a highly specialized field of study in which I have little experience. I simply tender the following comments to stimulate further discussion and inquiry. I have examined images of the Yingpan, Astana and Niya silks, and while seeing general esthetic similarities, question how close their cultural affiliations with the Gurgyam silk actually were. Many of the individual decorative motifs of the Gurgyam piece are quite distinct in form, and perhaps more importantly they are assembled into a different overall scheme. This led Victor Mair (an eminent scholar specializing in the archaeology of Xinjiang) and I independently to consider the possibility that this precious textile was woven locally from imported silk thread (on environmental grounds it does not appear that sericulture was ever practiced in western Tibet).

We are left with the possibility that the silk textile itself or the thread from which it was produced came from Han China and entered Tibet as a trade good or diplomatic exchange (directly from the Chinese or through intermediaries). We know from experts who contributed to my 2010 newsletter on the subject, that sericulture and silk weaving reached Khotan in the 2nd century CE and Mongolia probably around the same time. From the 3rd century CE, Sassanian Iran was also weaving silks of exquisite quality. Therefore, it is also possible that the Gurgyam silk or the yarn from which it was woven was an import from a Central Asian source and not China. In any case, the Gurgyam silk exhibits less ‘Silk Road’ influences than silks that postdate it from the Taklamakan with their Byzantine and Sassanian overtones.

Fig. 4. The inner border of the Gurgyam silk reveals a very finely woven silk batten. This is a feature of the textile not reported on earlier. Perhaps this will prove an important clue for specialists in Central Asian textiles and archaeology.

Fig. 4. The inner border of the Gurgyam silk reveals a very finely woven silk batten. This is a feature of the textile not reported on earlier. Perhaps this will prove an important clue for specialists in Central Asian textiles and archaeology.

We will now take a look at other Gurgyam grave goods collected by the monks, which are proudly displayed in the little museum they have built. Gurgyam must boast one of the only archaeological museums opened in a Tibetan monastery. Other artifacts from the burial are depicted in the October 2010 newsletter.

Fig. 5. Thick-walled, roughly modeled beaker and goblets. Note that the beaker has a pouring lip while the other vessels are stemmed. These vessels must have played a role in the burial rite. The Tibetan label behind the vessels says, ‘ceramics’ (rdza).

Fig. 5. Thick-walled, roughly modeled beaker and goblets. Note that the beaker has a pouring lip while the other vessels are stemmed. These vessels must have played a role in the burial rite. The Tibetan label behind the vessels says, ‘ceramics’ (rdza).

Fig. 6. A lathe-turned wooden object. The strap lathe and bow lathe were used widely in Eurasia in antiquity. We now know that by the 3rd or 4th century CE, Tibetans also knew the woodworking lathe, a significant discovery. The notch in the rim of the lid-like object and the circular disc and other fragment contained inside suggest that this was originally a relatively intricate piece of (ritual?) equipment.

Fig. 6. A lathe-turned wooden object. The strap lathe and bow lathe were used widely in Eurasia in antiquity. We now know that by the 3rd or 4th century CE, Tibetans also knew the woodworking lathe, a significant discovery. The notch in the rim of the lid-like object and the circular disc and other fragment contained inside suggest that this was originally a relatively intricate piece of (ritual?) equipment.

Fig. 7. A copper-alloy vessel labeled by the monks as ‘bronze cup’ (li-skyogs). Yes, almost certainly, this object with its handle was cast as a drinking cup. The ring handle appears to have been designed with a finger rest.

Fig. 7. A copper-alloy vessel labeled by the monks as ‘bronze cup’ (li-skyogs). Yes, almost certainly, this object with its handle was cast as a drinking cup. The ring handle appears to have been designed with a finger rest.

Fig. 8. Thin pieces of silver (?) embossed with diagonal lines. Some of these fragments appear to have been gilt. These fragments probably formed ornamental plates or sheathing. As with the copper, iron and copper-alloy items found in the same burial, these snippets are the handiwork of a people well versed in metallurgy and metalworking.

Fig. 8. Thin pieces of silver (?) embossed with diagonal lines. Some of these fragments appear to have been gilt. These fragments probably formed ornamental plates or sheathing. As with the copper, iron and copper-alloy items found in the same burial, these snippets are the handiwork of a people well versed in metallurgy and metalworking.

Fig. 9. This artifact from the Gurgyam interment is labeled ‘bellows tube of copper’ (zangs kyi sbud-pa). The function of this grave good is unknown, but it is worth mentioning that the archaic funerary tradition, as recorded in Old Tibetan literature, describes the use of tubes or conduits made of various metals (including copper) in a ritual to free the dead from demonic hindrances. For more information on this funerary ritual, see my forthcoming book, Death and Beyond in Ancient Tibet (Austrian Academy of Sciences, 2012).

Fig. 9. This artifact from the Gurgyam interment is labeled ‘bellows tube of copper’ (zangs kyi sbud-pa). The function of this grave good is unknown, but it is worth mentioning that the archaic funerary tradition, as recorded in Old Tibetan literature, describes the use of tubes or conduits made of various metals (including copper) in a ritual to free the dead from demonic hindrances. For more information on this funerary ritual, see my forthcoming book, Death and Beyond in Ancient Tibet (Austrian Academy of Sciences, 2012).

Fig. 10. A fragment of a human cranium. The monks assiduously collected the bones from the Gurgyam burial and have stored them well. It would be extremely valuable if these remains were to undergo osteological analyses. This is but one kind of scientific study required if we are to maximize our knowledge about the burial. Thanks to the care taken by the Gurgyam monks, further research is now feasible. Other tombs in the region have been opened without proper oversight and the contents discarded save for what may have market or esthetic value.

Fig. 10. A fragment of a human cranium. The monks assiduously collected the bones from the Gurgyam burial and have stored them well. It would be extremely valuable if these remains were to undergo osteological analyses. This is but one kind of scientific study required if we are to maximize our knowledge about the burial. Thanks to the care taken by the Gurgyam monks, further research is now feasible. Other tombs in the region have been opened without proper oversight and the contents discarded save for what may have market or esthetic value.

We now move a mile east to the citadel of Khardong. In 2010 and 2011, the monks made a series of discoveries there, all of which are housed in their museum. The keen eyesight and intimate acquaintance with the site permitted them to find things on the surface missed by other research teams.

Fig. 11. Among the finds at Khardong was this piece of timber (28 cm long by 17 cm in diameter). It was recovered from inside a masonry wall in the upper sector of the site.

Fig. 11. Among the finds at Khardong was this piece of timber (28 cm long by 17 cm in diameter). It was recovered from inside a masonry wall in the upper sector of the site.

As Mark Aldenderfer notes in his article (see bibliographic details above), with it’s larger and better constructed structures, the upper sector of Khardong appears to have been reserved for elite activity, such as that which revolved around the local ruling authority. Regional personnel requested that I date the piece of wood collected by the monks. A 6 cm length was removed from the raw timber. I had this sample AMS assayed by Beta Analytic, a well known radiocarbon lab in Miami, Florida. This piece of wood (poplar or willow?) provided sufficient final carbon for testing. It yielded a calibrated date of 130 CE to 260 CE. Its intercept date is 240 CE, just ten years earlier than the one for the Gurgyam burial. Looking at the chronometric data from these two samples in toto, we can be quite confident that the piece of wood (at the time of the tree’s death) is 50 to 150 years older than the buried occupant of Gurgyam. According to Li Yongxian’s lecture delivered at the International Association of Tibetan Studies conference in Bonn (2006), there were two major periods of occupation at the site: 1500–500 BCE and 100 BCE to 500 CE. It would appear, then, that the wood timber, which is almost certainly a constructional element, belongs to the middle of the latter phase of occupation at Khardong.

Before proceeding to possible implications of the chronometric findings reviewed above, let us view a few more artifacts recently discovered at Khardong. These will give us a better idea of the purview of material goods known in southwest Tibet in the 2nd to 4th century CE timeframe.

Fig. 12. A carved bi-hemispherical white igneous stone. The Gurgyam monks and I concur that this is a weight used on the end of a Tibetan beam scale. Identical stones (of various sizes) were used as weights right up to the modern period. The discovery of this Khardong example suggests that at least part of the traditional system of weights and measures in pre-modern Tibet was of pre-Buddhist antiquity. This stone, provided it dates to the time of the citadel, indicates that uniform standards had been adopted in parts of the Plateau very early on. Any such standardization of weights and measures would have facilitated trade and economic development. Wide, even interregional, trading networks may be implicated in this discovery. This scenario is supported by the discovery of cane and silk in the Gurgyam burial, commodities that in their raw forms came from outside the borders of Upper Tibet. To better understand the significance of the Khardong weight will require further research and exploration.

Fig. 12. A carved bi-hemispherical white igneous stone. The Gurgyam monks and I concur that this is a weight used on the end of a Tibetan beam scale. Identical stones (of various sizes) were used as weights right up to the modern period. The discovery of this Khardong example suggests that at least part of the traditional system of weights and measures in pre-modern Tibet was of pre-Buddhist antiquity. This stone, provided it dates to the time of the citadel, indicates that uniform standards had been adopted in parts of the Plateau very early on. Any such standardization of weights and measures would have facilitated trade and economic development. Wide, even interregional, trading networks may be implicated in this discovery. This scenario is supported by the discovery of cane and silk in the Gurgyam burial, commodities that in their raw forms came from outside the borders of Upper Tibet. To better understand the significance of the Khardong weight will require further research and exploration.

Fig. 13. Foliar iron arrowhead with long tapering tang. This implement is probably the product of a fully developed iron smelting culture.

Fig. 13. Foliar iron arrowhead with long tapering tang. This implement is probably the product of a fully developed iron smelting culture.

Fig. 14. A selection of semiprecious stone and glass beads recovered from Khardong by the sharp-eyed monks. This array of ornaments is remarkable for its sheer variety. The beads shown here represent diverse techniques of manufacture applied to a broad group of materials. These beads may date to different time periods. This variety in stones and glass is yet another potent sign that ancient southwestern Tibet was part of a far-ranging web of trade and exchange, one that encompassed sundry regions. I very much welcome the comments of readers, some of whom are liable to know more about ancient beads than I do. The function of the pieces of clear quartz and the dark-colored cylindrical stone in the image are unknown.

Fig. 14. A selection of semiprecious stone and glass beads recovered from Khardong by the sharp-eyed monks. This array of ornaments is remarkable for its sheer variety. The beads shown here represent diverse techniques of manufacture applied to a broad group of materials. These beads may date to different time periods. This variety in stones and glass is yet another potent sign that ancient southwestern Tibet was part of a far-ranging web of trade and exchange, one that encompassed sundry regions. I very much welcome the comments of readers, some of whom are liable to know more about ancient beads than I do. The function of the pieces of clear quartz and the dark-colored cylindrical stone in the image are unknown.

This newsletter focuses on two sites separated by just a mile and less than 150 years. The Gurgyam burial and Khardong citadel could not have existed in isolation from one another, for the latter stronghold ruled over the plains spread out below it. Here, as at other archaic archaeological sites in Upper Tibet, residential occupation occurred in the heights while the plains were used for mortuary purposes. The burial and fortress represent the interrelated monumental assemblage of the living and the dead. The study of Khardong made by Li Yongxian indeed confirms that this site chronologically overlaps with the Gurgyam tomb.

The individual interred in the Gurgyam tomb was of high social status and/or rank. This is demonstrated by the fine quality and sheer diversity of grave goods. A person of this lofty stature must have had an intimate association with the Khardong citadel but in what capacity is not known. The Gurgyam burial may help to establish Khardong as Khyunglung Ngulkhar, but this amounts to more circumstantial evidence, not definitive proof.

The nature of artifacts found at Gurgyam and Khardong are indicative of a culture characterized by a relatively high level of sophistication. Make no mistake; the objects recovered are the vestiges of a well developed material cultural regime, one based upon complex manufacturing and trading capabilities. Nevertheless, to date, there is no epigraphic or archaeological evidence for a written language having existed in Upper Tibet during the early centuries of the first millennium CE. Moreover, claims made in Bon literature for a Zhang Zhung script remain unsubstantiated. The refinement of Tibetan civilization in material and cultural terms, 1600 and more years ago, belies Lamaist stereotypes of a benighted and barbarous land in the period before Buddhism came to dominate.  Since Victorian times, this stereotype of a savage pre-Buddhist Tibet has permeated Western scholarship as well. Nothing could be further from the truth. Furthermore, Tibetan Buddhist accounts that attribute the founding of civilization to the first Central Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo (gNya’-khri btsan-po), or agriculture and metallurgy to Tibet’s ninth king Pude Gungyal (Pu-lde gung-rgyal), must also be called into question.

It appears that Buddhists were very sensitive about Tibet’s past, intent as they often were on seeing it through an unfavorable lens. This is not criticism of the Bodhidharma, but rather a critique of the political apparatus surrounding it. The syndrome of disparaging those who came before is reflected in cultural successors the world over. The situation in environmentally marginal Upper Tibet was particularly delicate. In the Lamaist era, the earlier extent of civilization was never reached again. A deteriorating climate worked against any such ambition. A possible precipitous fall in the native population in the region may also have contributed to a much reduced civilizational order in historic times.

The existence of extensive arable lands upstream and downstream of Gurgyam and Khardong tells us that its ancient residents belonged to an agrarian society. Agriculture in the region has every sign of originating in antiquity, as indicated by Tibetan folklore and literature, as well as by the wholesale abandonment of farmlands in the region over what appears to have been a very long period of time (retreating agricultural production in western Tibet is yet another area of study awaiting the attention of researchers).

Gurgyam and Khardong belonged to a specific type of settlement pattern, which can be characterized as ‘citadel agriculture’. This was the same form of settlement found in many valley systems of western Tibet before the Buddhist era. Residences and farms were aggregated around the protective embrace of fortresses strategically placed on summits for defense. In the last 15 years, I have surveyed dozens of these fortified sites in western Tibet. Like those of other centers of citadel agriculture, the makers of the Gurgyam burial and Khardong castle were a sedentary people. The climate and environment in western Tibet could only accommodate nucleated settlements, for water and arable land were restricted resources. In contrast, in the plains of India or China, settlement tended to be more diffuse and prolific. Thus, the population densities attained in western Tibet may have been considerably less than in many low elevation regions.

The acquisition of temporal power is not simply a matter of numbers. It extends to the manner in which societies are organized. The existence of a network of aggregated settlements and the broad range of material good produced combined with the rigors of the climate suggest that western Tibet excelled in the utilization of its human resources. Tibetan texts complement this view with their picture of a martial people. Further political and economic strength must have come from the pastoralists, who were interspersed between the citadel communities. The herders of yaks, goats, sheep, and horses added demographic bulk and economic wealth to the chain of citadels and agricultural enclaves.

According to Tong Tao (see bibliographic information above), the wooden coffin of the Gurgyam burial is identical to wooden coffins from Niya, Yingpan and Khotan from the first half of the first millennium CE. He observes that the Gurgyam coffin must result from influences derived from these Taklamakan sites. In my opinion, it far too early in the investigation to pronounce which people was in the culturally or politically dominant position. A two-way street of trade and exchange between the Tibetan Plateau and Taklamakan is probably indicated. Western Tibet was rich in raw materials (pastoral products, wild game, gold, botanicals, and salt and other minerals) as well as high quality finished products from which much power and influence may have been leveraged.

Tong Tao also notes that the U-shaped wooden comb, wooden cup and woven basketry bear strong similarities to those of Loulan and Khotan. Similarities in material goods, especially when the inventory we have to work with is so small, do not in themselves necessarily divulge the extent of cultural affinities between disparate regions. That admonition aside, there were indeed cultural links between Xinjiang and western Tibet in antiquity, as I show in various writings. The challenge now before us is to collect the data that will permit a better understanding of the nature of that interrelationship.

Let us place the Gurgyam burial and wooden timber from Khardong in a wider cultural perspective. In 220 CE, the Han dynasty collapsed ushering in a long and unsettled period in Chinese history. Even at the height of Han expansion, direct contacts with Western Tibet were limited at best, because Han armies did not penetrate that far. It is more plausible that these two powers knew of each other through cultural intermediaries and trading partners. In the 3rd century CE, the Parthian empire extended its maritime trade routes as far as Southeast Asia, and Manichaeism spread throughout much of Asia. What contacts, if any, western Tibetans had with Parthia and the religion of Mani is unclear. My extensive survey work in western Tibet has not turned up a single inscription written in a foreign language (unlike Ladakh and Indus Kohistan with their multilingual epigraphy). This lack of epigraphic evidence suggests that external cultural influences were minimal in scope or heavily modulated through indigenous structures. By the same line of reasoning, it is hard to see how the Gupta, Sassanian or Kushan empires could have had any more than tangential influence in western Tibet, in the 2nd to 4th centuries CE. Moreover, the art and architecture of these peoples have not been documented in Upper Tibet. While trade links in particular are indicated (perhaps an odd coin or two from adjoining states will show up in western Tibet, if they have not already), massive demographic or cultural intrusions are not. All relevant evidence shows that Upper Tibet was most receptive to vectors of influence originating in north Inner Asia.

The archaeological evidence taken as a whole bespeaks an ancient Upper Tibet very much in control of its own destiny, with its own unique culture and way of life centuries before the advent of Buddhism.

The western highlands were a great hub of the distinctive Tibetan civilization with its many linguistic and geographic branches. The ethnical and cultural makeup of ancient Upper Tibet, therefore, must be understood on its own terms and not simply through the looking glass of other peoples. It is only in the last few years that the archaeological discoveries needed to appreciate the level of advancement reached in western Tibetan by the early first millennium CE have appeared. The same can be said for other quarters of the Tibetan Plateau as well: they had achieved a great deal of cultural and technological advancement in the pre-Buddhist epoch.

A final word in this newsletter on Zhang Zhung. Can what has been discovered on the ground be equated with the Zhang Zhung of Tibetan and Chinese historical texts? The answer is yes, but with some qualification. Inasmuch as Zhang Zhung is the traditional appellation for the land, cultural and people of western Tibet, it can with good reason be used as an archaeological term to describe the general character of pre-Buddhist civilization in that region. It is important to point out, however, that Zhang Zhung is not tantamount to a specific period of time or phase in Upper Tibetan Civilization. Perhaps when enough archaeological information is acquired we might begin to refer to earlier and later Zhang Zhungs, but that remains to be seen. In the same overarching way, the traditional word bon / bon-po (not to be equated with the Lamaist Bon religion) can be applied to the cultural and religious make up of pre-Buddhist Upper Tibet. However, when used in an archaeological context this term needs to be qualified chronologically, geographically and functionally. Upon saying that, welcome to the amazing world of Zhang Zhung and bon!

More on ancient western Tibet next month!

Supplement on Khardong and on the Zhang Zhung capital  

Posted June, 2012

Since publishing this newsletter, the volume referred to above (Emerging Bon) has been published. I am happy to have received a copy thanks to Dr. Henk Blezer (the editor) and the publisher. I will review here some of its contents relative to our discussion about the cultural history of Khardong and Gurgyam. The work of other scholars as set forth in this volume are essential for obtaining a broader and more accurate picture of Khardong and surrounding archaeological sites. I will review the textual analyses contained in Emerging Bon on another occasion.

Mark Aldenderfer

Professor Mark Aldenderfer’s paper in Emerging Bon is entitled “The Material Correlates of Religious Practice in Far Western Tibet” (pp. 13–33). In his excellent work, Aldenderfer notes that survey work and excavation at Khardong have revealed an occupation dated 500 BCE–900 CE, and possibly an earlier one as well (800–500 BCE; p. 14). Aldenderfer contrasts these findings with my surveys, stating that few of the sites I have documented have been scientifically dated or studied systematically (ibid.).

My note: My early publications on the antiquities of Upper Tibet are indeed preliminary in makeup, reflecting the pioneering nature of the work. However, with the publication of Zhang Zhung (2008) and the two Antiquities of Zhang Zhung volumes (2011), a more systematic approach has been instituted. These publications contain the results of 23 calibrated radiocarbon assays and an analysis of their significance to the relevant ensemble of monuments. These chronometric data deal with a wide cross-section of sites and help to establish a chronology for them. Nevertheless, this is merely a drop in the bucket as regards the potential for this kind of scientific study. Hopefully, conditions will improve and permit more detailed surveys of the archaeological sites I and others have documented in Upper Tibet.

Mark Aldenderfer observes how difficult it can be to discern religious traditions in material remains (pp. 15, 16). He offers that restricted distributions of artifacts, the exclusive nature of their placement, and objects that are unique in quality may point to religious phenomena (ibid.).

My note: Yet it must be noted that even these criteria while certainly helpful are far from foolproof.

In his paper, Aldenderfer examines Structure S66, a low rectangular stepped masonry and earthen platform (8 m x 2 m) found in the lower west portion of the Khardong mesa top (p. 17). Three radiocarbon samples were recovered from around S66: 1) unburnt piece of wood that is part of the construction, yielding a calibrated date of 667–895 CE; 2) unburnt wood found near base of excavation, with a calibrated date of 44 BCE–435 CE; 3) fragment of animal bone recovered near the base of structure, with a calibrated date of 396 BCE – 87 CE (p. 18).  From this chronometric data, Aldenderfer posits two phases of use for the S66 platform, ranging from 500 BCE to 400 CE (ibid.).

My note: I am somewhat perplexed by Aldenderfer’s application of all three radiocarbon dates to S66, for only one of them, and the most recent date, seems to have actually been a part of the structure, according to the description given. While, the other unburnt wood and animal bone fragment recovered near the bottom of S66 allude to a longstanding cultural function for the site, is it certain that they belong to the usage of the structure? This matter must be more carefully considered to ensure that the older samples have a functional relationship with S66. As for the piece of wood integrated in S66, it appears to fix the establishment or reuse of it to the early historic period (650–1000 CE). That a single platform, a relatively minor construction, was used for 900 years, as implied by Aldenderfer, requires further corroboration.

The lack of a residential function, location at the rim of mesa and the discovery of a small copper alloy anthropomorphic statue discovered near base of S66 suggest that it had a religious or ritual function (pp. 19, 20). Aldenderfer briefly discusses the pillars discovered at Dindun (Sdings-zlum) in a domestic context, which can be dated 500 BCE–100 CE (p. 20). He hypothesizes, as in his earlier publications, that they were used as part of the cult of mountain deities (ibid.). He observes that the standing stone alignments I have charted most probably date to the same epoch (pp. 20, 28).

My note: Aldenderfer’s hypothesis concerning the function of domestic pillars is well conceived, if even it is only a partial assignment of their function. Given the vast set of morphological and situational traits of the pillars I have documented, both earlier and later dates for them should also be entertained. I place this potential chronological range from 750 BCE–650 CE (early Iron Age and protohistoric period), pending more hard information. Whatever their precise chronological characteristics, as Aldenderfer states, the pillars of Upper Tibet do indeed have an archaic cultural identity that predates the spread of Buddhism in Tibet.

In 2006 and 2007, Aldenderfer together with our Chinese colleagues discovered an archaeological site in Khyunglung Yulme (Khyung-lung yul-smad), west of the so-called Silver Fortress (pp. 21, 22). A large number of residential compounds (30–50), corrals, storage facilities, two pillars (situated on each end of the site), and other minor structures were found at this location (ibid.). On the ridge that rises above these remains no less than 20 small stone circles and at least two stepped rectangular platforms were documented (p. 23). Near the east end of this same ridge a large tabular pillar toppled from its frame was detected (ibid). Aldenderfer compares the pillars of this site with those of Dindun, suggesting a similar date for them: 500 BCE–100 CE (p. 24). He also draws comparisons between the S66 platform of Khardong and the platforms of Khyunglung Yulme, suggesting an analogous period of construction (pp. 24, 30).

My note: Although the time period put forward by Aldenderfer for the Khyunglung Yulme pillars is a good starting point, caution is warranted. The pillars of Dindun and Yulme were discovered in somewhat different topographic and monumental contexts. Thus there is a possibility that we are comparing the proverbial oranges and apples, i.e., their age and functions may be variable in nature. In any case, long slabs of stone are found in a variety of archaeological settings in Upper Tibet. Likewise, masonry and earthen platforms by their very nature are elementary in form and may have been used for a variety of purposes. Therefore, the functional and chronological analogies Aldenderfer draws are provisional in nature. Essential in pinpointing the age and functions of structures such as slabs of stone and masonry pillars is the recovery of associated artifacts. Thus more survey work leading to a systematic and inclusive regimen of excavation is the order of the day.

Aldenderfer goes on state that recurring patterns in the mortuary and residential archaeology of Dindun, Khardong and allied sites in Guge can be used to postulate a Zhang Zhung polity and perhaps Zhang Zhung ethnicity as well, which existed circa 500 BCE–100 CE (pp. 28, 29). He adds that other chronometric findings may extend this temporal range from circa 800 BCE to 650 CE, the later date consistent with historical evidence (ibid.). Aldenderfer also notes that, given the defensive features and elite architecture of the Khardong site, combined with the radiometric and historical data pertaining to it, “a very strong case can be made for equating Mkhar gdong ri with Khyung lung dngul mkhar” (p. 29). As to the religion of ‘Zhang Zhung’ Aldenderfer refers to it as ‘indigenous pre-Buddhist’, which may or may not be equated with an ancient form of Bon.

My note: For Aldenderfer and our purposes in general, ‘pre-Buddhist’ denotes the time prior to the major introduction of Buddhism in Tibet, circa 650–800 CE. As cited at the end of this newsletter (see above), as long as the proper qualifications are made, there is no reason why terms such as Zhang Zhung, bon / indigenous cannot be used to label Upper Tibet archaeological materials. ‘Zhang Zhung’ and ‘bon’ occur in Tibet’s earliest literature, as part of a native understanding of ancient cultural and historical forces. Nonetheless, much more needs to be done in order to understand how the Tibetan textual and oral traditions inform the empirical evidence. Aldenderfer’s work, as demonstrated in the paper under review and in his other works on the subject, are a vital step towards that goal.

Li Yongxian

The next paper from the Emerging Bon volume we shall examine was written by Professor Li Yongxian and is entitled “Archaeological Survey of ‘Khyung Lung Silver Castle’ in Western Tibet” (pp. 35–52). In the introduction to his highly valuable work, Li equates Zhang Zhung with Nvguo (Kingdom of Woman) of the Chinese sources (p. 35). During the course of his field surveys, 16 archaeological sites (including rock art and sites with stone tools) were documented in the Sutlej River valley (p. 38).

Li records the Khardong dispersion as covering roughly 100,000 m² (ibid.). He divides the mesa top into four sections:

Section A (approximately 60,000 m²) is located on the lower and widest portion of mesa top. Reportedly, it consists of over 90 residences, public buildings, defensive structures and storage cisterns. The houses have square or round plans and contain one or more room. Some residences have a circular or semi-circular ‘corral’ in front. It was in Section A of the site that the small copper alloy anthropomorphic statue was discovered. See pp. 39, 40.

Section B (approximately 15,000 m²) is located on the west central portion of mesa top. Thirteen structures were charted, consisting mostly of defensive walls (up to 300 m in length). A long inner rampart and discontinuous outer ramparts were mapped. These defensive walls are composed of conglomerate blocks and small amounts of cobbles and slabs. Some stones used in the defensive walls were chiseled into shape. See p. 40.

Section C (approximately 10,000 m²) is situated on the central east portion of mesa top. Twenty different constructions or groups of constructions were charted, including an L-shaped defensive wall 200 m in length. Near a small contemporary Bon temple there is a group of buildings that may possibly have had a ritual function. See p. 41.

Section D is found on the highest point of the mesa and is separated from the other sections of the site by a distance of 250 m. Eight buildings were charted on summit, all with a defense function. See p. 41.

My note: It is now clear that my original estimate for the Khardong dispersion (more than 20,000 m²) was wildly conservative. In follow-up studies it would be useful for Li and his colleagues to lay out the morphological and locational characteristics they employ to discern residences, public buildings, ritual facilities and defensive structures from one another. This is essential if we are to better understand the social patterns of usage at the site, and for possible application in formulating a processualist or human ecological model of its occupation. In my opinion, what Li identifies as corrals connected to residences are more likely to be walled patios or courtyards, which were used in a variety of domestic activities. While perhaps horses were sometimes tethered in these enclosures, they are not pastoral structures per se (such domestic structures are found at many all-stone corbelled residential sites). Some of the structures on the summit of Khardong, at least in more recent times, were ritualistic in nature and are where deities were propitiated, as is common throughout Tibet. Whether these structures were built for this purpose or were adapted from the fortifications is not clear to me. In any case, in the course of further research, we need to better understand how Khardong was occupied and how that occupation changed over time.

Twelve samples for radiocarbon analysis were collected from Khardong including 7 samples of carbonized material collected from inside constructions that extend above the ground surface, 4 samples of carbonized bone and other material collected from early (deeper) layers of the site, and one sample of a wooden post collected from the inner side of a defensive wall (p. 42). Three of the samples were ‘contaminated’ and unusable for chronometric study (ibid.). The other nine samples reveal two major periods of occupation: 1800–2100 BP (mostly from surface constructions) and 3000–3400 BP (mostly from strata situated underneath buildings; pp. 42, 43). Thus is it appears that Khardong was in continuous usage for over 1000 years (p. 43). Its culture seems to fit that of ancient Zhang Zhung (ibid.).

My note:  As Li states, the distribution of radiocarbon dates for Khardong does indicate that the site was occupied for a very long time. It appears from the sampling results that the structural remains, the buildings and walls of various kinds, began to be established circa 100 BCE. If so, this would make the installation roughly contemporaneous with another major stronghold Gekho Kharlung (Ge-khod mkhar-lung) in Ruthok (see Antiquities of Zhang Zhung for more information). Thus a pattern of large fortified sites is emerging in western Tibet, which were in use around two millennia ago. This finding is liable to have powerful implications for the chronology, identity and interrelationships of other archaic strongholds in the region. The Gekho Kharlung site is especially important because it seems to establish the antiquity of all-stone corbelled residential architecture in the region, something hinted at by Aldenderfer’s chronometric findings from Dindun.

My note: The wooden post whose radiocarbon date was discussed in this newsletter falls just inside the second phase of the Khardong occupation, as delineated by Li. By the time that the fortification with its posts was constructed and the silk deposited in the burial of Gurgyam, it appears that Khardong was already well established as a hilltop citadel. From the chronological evidence (direct and indirect) presented by Aldenderfer and Li, this post construction and burial occurred midstream in the history of the site. The ostensible earlier occupation of Khardong appears more ambiguous, at least from the description given in Li’s paper. It is not clear to me if any of first phase samples are directly associated with structural remains. Is this earlier phase a sedentary occupation of Khardong or representative of a more mobile lodging arrangement? Hopefully, the Chinese will furnish us with a stratigraphic study of the site, so that we can better understand how the chronometric data relates to the facts on the ground. It would also be helpful to know which marine or terrestrial records were used to compute the calibration curve upon which Li’s radiocarbon results are based. I take it that his BP (Before Present) uses 1950 CE as its starting point, as convention has it. For my testing, I usually rely on the Beta Analytic lab in Miami, which is transparent about its radiocarbon calibration techniques.

Large amount of materials were recovered from Khardong, including blackish pottery shards, different types of grinding stones, stone mortars, flaked and other kinds of stone tools, pieces of iron armor, bronze vessels, and ornaments. The large millstones were probably used to process cereals or dairy products, thus the population was sedentary and probably of considerable size. See pp. 42, 44.

My note: Another valuable follow-up study that should be undertaken is a thorough typological analysis of all the artifacts recovered from Khardong. The flaked stone tools (microliths?) probably belong to the first phase of occupation at Khardong. They may possibly indicate that the site was once occupied by bands of hunters. The large grinding tools are consistent with the agricultural status of Guge, an economic pattern that has every indication of being of considerable antiquity.

Li and his team also surveyed the very important mortuary site of Dzapung (Rdza-spungs), which includes two large stone tumuli (p. 43). The large size and grandeur of Dzapung persuades Li to see it as a royal burial ground (pp. 43, 44, 46). In his talk given at the IATS conference in Bonn (2006), he was under the impression that this may have been a residential site but further deliberation on the matter convinced him otherwise. Other mortuary sites surveyed by Li in the Khardong area include Lhatho (Lha-tho) and Chusumguk (Chu-gsum dgug; ibid.). Li holds that Khardong is indeed probably the Khyunglung Ngulkhar of the Tibetan literary tradition (p. 45). He cites its size, geographic location and morphology as the reasons for his belief (p. 44). He thinks that all the archaeological sites surveyed near Khardong should encompass one cultural settlement (p. 46). He characterizes it as being endowed with a stable society, a centralized power structure, and a self-regulated productive capacity (ibid.). The nature of the stronghold and mortuary sites indicate that high ranking powers exerted influence over this region for a long time (ibid.). As for the period of occupation of these various sites in and around Khardong, Li identifies it with Zhang Zhung (ibid.)

My note: For Dzapung, also see Chu-nag (the name of the local stream) in Antiquities of Zhang Zhung. This site was first documented in 2002 and information about it directly passed onto Li Yongxian and Huo Wei. I am glad that my team could disclose its existence because it has led to more detailed archaeological study. It was immediately apparent to me when surveying the remains at Dzapung that it potentially possesses a royal imprint. For one thing, it is the single largest mortuary site surveyed to date in all of Upper Tibet. Li’s concluding statements about Khardong and allied sites ring true. First of all, they are indeed likely to belong to the same paleoculture, as it developed over a period of at least a millennium. Khardong and the local funerary loci were the fruits of an industrious people with highly developed cultural and political structures.

My note: The challenge before us now is to learn how the paleoculture connected to Khardong and its environs changed and evolved over time. Clearly, more survey work and excavation at Khardong, Dzapung and Khyunglung Yulme is demanded. Further examination of these sites is crucial, as so many questions about the nature of ‘pre-Buddhist indigenous’ culture remain to be answered. This can only be realized if a wider spectrum of experts and resources is brought in to conduct scientific inquiries. I am guardedly optimistic.

Alex McKay

The third and final paper in Emerging Bon we will examine in this newsletter was written by Dr. Alex McKay and is entitled “In Search of Zhang Zhung–The ‘Grey and Empty Land’?” (pp. 185–206). McKay begins by noting that archaeological findings must be addressed in any historical analysis of western Tibet (p. 185).

My note: Alex is certainly justified in calling for the archaeology of Upper Tibet to be acknowledged by textualists working on the region. Thus far, they have been wont to do so. How can you understand the historical development of the region if you ignore its entire infrastructure of early monuments? Historians often cite Buddhist era constructions in their writings but seldom archaic era constructions. The problem seems to be that the few historians specializing in Tibet have a sufficient background in archaeology.

McKay observes that Tibetan sources view Zhang Zhung, circa the mid-6th to mid-7th century CE, as a polity with a king, royal court and diplomatic capacity (p. 187). The existence of these political structures implies an economic surplus and a revenue collection capacity derived from an agricultural and/or trading base (ibid.).

McKay tells us that circa the first and second centuries CE, the Kushans exerted their authority over lower Ladakh, thus their frontiers bordered the territory that has come to be known as Zhang Zhung (pp. 187–189). To the northwest of Zhang Zhung were the Dards, a more loosely defined ethnohistorical entity. To the south of the Himalaya, in Uttarakhand, there existed the Kunindas (ibid.) These three groupings were ethnically [linguistically] Indo-Iranian or Indo-European, in contrast to the [Tibeto-Burman] Zhang Zhung polity (ibid.). It appears that the western extent of Zhang Zhung formed a cultural watershed and this along with difficult terrain may have limited the political expansion of both Indian peoples and Zhang Zhung (p. 190). Trade and religious ties however may have existed on a limited basis (ibid.).

My note: The configuration of peoples in the early first millennium CE, as outlined by McKay is a historical fact, however, it is only in the imperial period with the emergence of written records in Tibet (and in China in the same timeframe) that political and cultural links between western Tibet and outlying countries are confirmed. As I have noted in Zhang Zhung, to date no inscriptions in foreign languages or in a Zhang Zhung script have been discovered in Upper Tibet. This lack of historical and epigraphic data enhances the value of the archaeological record, for we have little else to rely upon. For instance, the archaeological evidence presented in this newsletter vindicates McKay’s position on trade. I would think that the high altitude of western Tibet more than difficult terrain was the largest obstacle to colonization from abroad. The specific ecological conditions of the region may also have deterred expansion of people from western Tibet into adjoining areas of Turkestan and lower elevation Himalayan tracts. On the other hand, ethnological and linguistic evidence suggests a strong interplay between Zhang Zhung and Ladakh and the Himalayan rim-land.

McKay feels that “rocky topography” in Zhang Zhung and the lack of stables in its strongholds suggests that grazing areas may not have been suitable for mounted horsemen following yaks (pp. 190, 191). However, he sees hunting as having been an important economic activity in Zhang Zhung (p. 192).

My note: Although it is evident that stables are not generally found in archaic strongholds in Upper Tibet, there is often plenty of grazing land below the rocky formations on which they are sited. The defensive posture of early Upper Tibetan citadels (characterized by very steep approaches, staggered ramparts as cover for bowmen and slingers, integration of the parent formation into structures, etc.) is not predicated on the tactical use of a cavalry. The horse is in fact an exceptionally important animal in the pre-Buddhist rock art of Upper Tibet and is frequently depicted as a mount in hunting and combat contexts. Thus the horse appears to have been a vital economic animal in ancient Tibet from the early Iron Age onwards. Moreover, given the wide valleys and plains of Upper Tibet (including much of western Tibet), mounted warriors would have much strategic value as a frontline defensive force. While it is true that few rock art compositions chronicle yak herding, it is important to note that Upper Tibetan rock art compositions seldom furnish a tableau or ordinary life, such as domestic constructions or family activities. This medium was largely reserved for portraying hunting, combat, ritualistic functions, creatures of the natural world, and mythological themes. The period in which the horse makes its debut in Upper Tibetan rock art coincides with the spread of nomadic pastoralism in Central Asia and Mongolia, and probably in Tibet as well but in a modified form. As I have written earlier, all indications are that the rearing of yaks, sheep, goats and horses was indeed a significant element in the economic mix of pre-Buddhist Upper Tibet.

McKay continues by arguing for trade as being paramount to Zhang Zhung’s well-being, dominating even over farming (pp. 191–194). He sees gold, borax and salt as probably being the main Upper Tibetan trade commodities (pp. 192–194). McKay further points out that the geographic position of Zhang Zhung would have made it the dominant player on the Tibetan Plateau as regards trade to the north and west (p. 194). Zhang Zhung is not far from the Khotan-Wakhan-Bamiyan and Gilgit-Kashmir-Ladakh trade corridors (ibid.). As McKay also notes, in order for the Yarlung dynasty of Central Tibet to control trade routes between Bactria, Turkestan and India, the conquest of Zhang Zhung was imperative (p. 195).

My note: McKay’s ideas on the role of trade in determining the fortunes of Zhang Zhung are well grounded and presented. This is not merely a theoretical matter as the array of material goods unearthed from Khardong, Gurgyam and other Guge sites shows.

McKay insightfully differentiates a Zhang Zhung state from a cultural tradition that shared the same economic fabric (pp. 196–198). The political apparatus of Zhang Zhung probably evolved over time and may have been characterized more by shifting political alliances rather than centralization (pp. 198, 199). McKay sees Zhang Zhung being best described as a dynamic confederation, in the Central Asian model, linking clans to power relationships (p. 199).

My note: That Zhang Zhung may have been a tribal or clan confederacy is an old idea in Tibetological circles and has much to commend it. For one thing, the network of citadels and funerary ritual sites overlying Upper Tibet I have surveyed may well be indicative of a decentralized power structure in which certain clans dominated. The tradition of multiple Zhang Zhung capitals in Tibetan literature also seems to support the existence of a decentralized polity.

McKay holds that Tibetan literary accounts of Zhang Zhung cannot be used to adduce its temporality (pp. 199–201). McKay also suggests that sacred mountains may have been used politically to circumscribe the Zhang Zhung territory (pp. 202–204). He concludes his study by reflecting on the fact that the material remains identified as part of a Zhang Zhung cultural complex by Aldenderfer, the Chinese, and I, are still not well fixed chronologically, nor is its relationship to a political Zhang Zhung clear (p. 205).

My final note: The admonitions McKay offers us are both prudent and instructive. These highlight how much more work needs to be done before we adequately understand Khardong, let alone the vast territory that may have once constituted a Zhang Zhung ‘confederation’. As in the newsletter above, McKay suggests that there may have been both early and late Zhang Zhungs, something Tibetan historical texts hardly address due to their often ahistorical slant. As regards the study of Zhang Zhung, we should rejoice in the progress made and aspire to make more headway. In the long run this will be of great service to Tibet.

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