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  • Writer's pictureAccessible Art History

Art History Mystery: What are the Jiahu Symbols?



Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I’m diving into another art history mystery! In 1989, a group of archaeologists working in a cave in Jiahu, a neolithic Peiligang culture site in Henan, China discovered something remarkable. Sixteen distinct markings were found on the artifacts, all dating to around 6000 BCE. The earliest known writing in China up until that point dates to c. 1250 BCE - 1200 BCE. But, there is some argument over whether these symbols are just images or do in fact represent the oldest known writing system in China. So, to find out more, keep on reading!


As I mentioned, the discovery of the symbols took place in 1989. That year, archaeologists working in a cave discovered a burial of twenty four, Neolithic era, individuals. Among the grave goods were pottery vessels, tortoise shells, and bone instruments. On these items were incised symbols. This was quite shocking to the archaeologists as it was the first time that any type of written symbols had been found in a site dating back to the Neolithic period.


According to some archaeologists, the symbols discovered in Jiahu bear a striking resemblance to later Chinese script called “oracle bone script”. This can particularly be seen in the signs for “eye” and “sun”. This case was also made stronger by the fact that many symbols were found etched into the tops of tortoise shells. There is evidence that in Ancient China, tortoise shells were used as divination tools.


However, other scholars argue that they were meant to only be symbolic and were only the foundation for later language development. Without more examples of the symbols in the archaeological record, it is hard to say for sure!


Thankfully, we have more than just the symbols to tell us about the people of the Jiahu culture. On May 18, 2023, a new museum opened in China to celebrate them and the eight archaeological excavations that helped uncover the sites. This will also help visitors understand how the Jiahu people laid foundations for the development of Chinese culture and traditions.


Around 400 pieces will be displayed in the new museum. Curators have coupled this with interactive exhibits and digital elements to complete the guests’ educational experience. This will help get visitors excited about archaeology and Chinese history!


Although there are differing opinions on whether the Jiahu symbols are the earliest form of Chinese writing, there is no doubt about the importance of the culture. The archaeological sites have shed light onto a time long ago!

 

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