New Archaeological Discoveries in Tibet

By John Vincent Bellezza, Published: Dec. 1,
1998

Fig. 1: Looking down at a roof, Black Rock
In August and September of 1998 I discovered a series of pre-Buddhist archaeological sites in the western Tibet province of Ngari (mNga’ ris) (1). Located in close proximity to what had been important prehistoric sources of fresh water, these ancient sites include burial mounds, villages and ceremonial structures. Situated at 4500 meters in the Changthang (Byang thang), the vast northern plains of Tibet, these finds significantly add to our knowledge of Tibet before the spread of Buddhism in the 7th to 11th centuries.

Until I began systematic exploration of Changthang, more than ten years ago, little was known about the character of its ancient civilization. In that time, I have charted dozens of sites spread over 400, 000 square kilometers, documenting the existence of the legendary Zhang zhung kingdom. Zhang zhung, according to classical Tibetan texts, was a powerful nation which dominated the Tibetan plateau before being conquered by the central Tibetan Pugyal (sPu rgyal) dynasty in the 7th or 8th century (2). Textual sources aside, there was little evidence for Zhang zhung before I began my work.

Fig. 2 Black Rock
My findings demonstrate that rather than merely pursuing a nomadic way of life the people of Zhang zhung built settlements in many locations in the Changthang. This is remarkable in that until the Communist period the overwhelming majority of shepherds lived in tents and not permanent structures.

Earlier in the century, Western scholars did some pioneering work as have Chinese archaeologists more recently. In the 1920’s, the Central Asiatic Expedition of George Roerich uncovered megalithic sites and graves in the Changthang, which appeared to be typologically related to the Bronze Age and Iron Age barrows of Eurasia (3). In the 1940’s, the renowned tibetologist Professor Tucci advanced archaeology further by discovering the remains of pre-Buddhist temples at Khyung Lung Ngulkhar (Khyung lung dngul mkhar)(4). Since the 1970’s, Chinese scientists have discovered Neolithic tools and paintings at a variety of places in the Changthang (5). Work continues and, on the 19th of September, 1998, the Lhasa branch of the Xinhua news agency announced that the Chinese had uncovered fortresses, settlements and wall paintings in Ngari province at an elevation of 4000 meters.

Fig. 3 Black Rock
In 1998, travelling alone and on foot, I charted and photographed the ruins of three pre-Buddhist villages, a large cemetery and two sites called Monra (Enclosure of the Mon). Monpa is a generic term for inhabitants of the Himalayan rimland, and these later discoveries seem to allude to ancient contacts between peoples of both sides of the Himalaya (6). The three prehistoric villages are located in such remote locations that only a handful of nomads who actually graze animals in the vicinity know of their existence. As these villages belong to an almost extinct indigenous cultural tradition local shepherds (called drokpa \ ’brog pa) have scant knowledge of when these settlements were founded. In general, they affirm that the inhabitants practiced Bon. It is known that Bon, the indigenous religions of Tibet, held sway in the country until the introduction of Buddhism in the 7th to 11th centuries. Tibetologists are hopeful that these ancient Bon settlements will reveal much about early Bon traditions. The cemetery I discovered has been long forgotten by the local shepherds but nevertheless may prove very valuable as scientists probe the secrets of ancient Tibet.

Fig. 4 Ruins at Crystal Rock
One of the ancient settlements called Crystal Rock is divided into four areas scattered over several square kilometers. It appears that these four sites were chosen by the builders so that they would be in close proximity to their environment-based deities. Located near a holy mountain and a body of water, these natural features are thought by the shepherds to be inhabited by a god and goddess respectively (7). Research demonstrates that the pairing of male mountains with female water sources was a key part of ancient mythology in the Changthang. These sacred pairs or dyads were instrumental in the creation myths and theogonies of the shepherds and their hunting and gathering ancestors. The dyads, the cultural and religious centers of the pre-Buddhist Changthang, acted as a powerful impetus for the foundation of early settlements. This cultural context explains the siting of Crystal rock but there are other factors at play as well. Occupying prominent ground, the settlement of this village may also have had defensive purposes. Furthermore, the location of Crystal Rock is important in that it straddles an important pastoral region.

Fig. 5 Crystal Rock
At Crystal Rock five discrete structures are discernable and one larger complex, nestled in an escarpment. Two of the three discrete structures have the remains of stone arches which were employed in the construction of their roofs. The walls of these buildings were constructed primarily of white limestone blocks while the arches were hewn from dark-colored igneous rock. By comparing the discrete structural remains at Crystal Rock with other prehistoric sites I was able to ascertain that they functioned at last in part, as houses. The identity and extent of the escarpment complex is more problematic. Most of this complex was leveled to the ground and many of the building stones used to construct mani walls. According to shepherds who graze their livestock in the vicinity, the complex was part of an ancient village. The escarpment complex is subdivided in three parts covering approximately 400 square meters, an indication of its relative importance in a land which has known few buildings.

Fig. 6 Black Rock
The most intact of the three ancient villages is called Black Rock and consists of the ruins of over one dozen domiciles built of limestone and igneous rock. These ancient habitations are arrayed around the base of an outcropping, two terraces and a hollow. Today at Black Rock there is no reliable source of potable water, however, according to paleoclimatological studies conducted by Chinese scientists in the region, a nearby lake contained freshwater as recently as 3000 years ago (8). Also at Black Rock are the remains of what appear to be chortens (mchod rten), and tenkhar (rten mkhar), shrines used in the worship of environment-based deities.

Fig. 7 Black Rock; Founder's House
The largest of the structures, coined the Founders House, is 12 meters long and a 8.5 meters wide inclusive of its open courtyard. Founders House is the best preserved structure discovered, providing a superb insight into archaic building techniques. It is built entirely of stone including its roof, exhibiting a level of masonry skill unknown in contemporary Changthang. Supported by stone beams resting on wall braces, the roof was built of stone slabs arrayed in a radial pattern. The interior of the structure consists of a single room subdivided in six parts. The partitions in the room serve to bear the load carried by the roof beams or rafters. These partitions also appear to have divided the house into specialized areas used for cooking, storage, sleeping etc. A most unusual feature is found in the interior rear of the house; a stele which stands 65cm tall (9).

Fig. 8 Black Rock; Founder's House
The remaining houses at Black Rock are in successively poorer states of preservation. Save for one exception, they appear to have been built without windows. Each of the houses had a walled courtyard leading to the entrance of the house. The entrances range from 1.1 meters to 1.5 meters in height. All entrances face east, traditionally the preferred orientation for the doors of the shepherd’s yak hair tents. Some of the houses were divided into two or more units each consisting of small irregular shaped rooms, typically around 1.8 meters in length. The largest structure at Black Rock is situated on the Lower Terrace. Its rear wall extends for 50 meters and appears to have been an integrated multi-roomed complex. Unfortunately, surface remains have been largely obliterated, in part, because some of its stones were borrowed to construct corrals.

Fig. 9 Black Rock

Fig. 10 stelae at Black Rock

Fig. 11 Black Rock

Fig. 12 Red Rock
The third and most extensive pre-Buddhist village I discovered is called Red Rock by the local shepherds. It consists of the ruins of at least 23 stone houses which were mainly constructed using locally quarried limestone. According to the local shepherds Red Rock was built in ancient times on the site of a magical earthen swastika. Locals also relate a legend concerning a lama named Lakpa Gyaltsen who while sojourning at Red Rock was visited in a dream by the yul lha (the god ruling the environs) in the form of a fierce red man. In this dream the yul lha proclaimed that the long stones used to build Red Rock are "pillars of the sky" while "the small stones mark the divisions of the earth", a clear allusion to an important ancient mythological theme (10).

Fig. 13 Ruined domiciles at Red Rock
Unlike Black Rock, none of the structures at Red Rock have intact roofs except for one specimen which was rebuilt by a lama sometime in the past as his meditation retreat. The structures at Red Rock are situated in three gullies and at the base and summit of an escarpment, as well as in the cliff face. Structural remains indicate that the buildings were constructed in a similar fashion to those at Black Rock.

Fig. 14 Monra
The groups of ruins termed Monra by the shepherds consist of foundation walls level with the ground. A surface appraisal of these ruins reveals very little about their identity. Shepherds in the vicinity claim they were the residences of the Monpa. I also discovered what appears to be an ancient cemetery consisting of stone rings and small burial mounds spread over approximately one kilometer. Built along a long shelf, these funerary structures average two to three meters in diameter. The rings and mounds resemble graves used to inter Iron Age commoners belonging to various central Asian cultures such as the Huns and Scythians (11).

Fig. 15 stone ring, cemetery
With these latest finds I now believe I have enough archaeological evidence to outline the patterns of permanent settlement of the Zhang zhung kingdom. This evidence supports Bon records which claim that Zhang Zhung stretched across the entire Changthang. These recent discoveries pave the way for more specialized archaeological exploration. It is hoped that concerned individuals and organizations will some day conduct excavations at these sites. While documentation, surface appraisals and the collecting of oral histories are an essential first step, there is a clarion call for hard scientific data. There is still so much to learn now that the door of discovery has been opened.

Footnotes:

(1) John Vincent Bellezza has published a number of scholarly works detailing his research and discoveries in the Changthang. A major work "Divine Dyads: Ancient Civilization in Tibet" (Library of Tibetan Works and Archives: 1997) explicates the cultural history and archaeology of Namtso (gNam mtsho) and Dangra Yumtso (Dang ra g.yu mtsho). His monographs and articles include "Doring Revisited" (Himal: May-June, 1995);"A Preliminary Archaeological Study of Da rog mtsho" (LTWA: to appear in the Spring 1999 volume of The Tibet Journal) and "Notes on Some Unusual Symbols" (East West: Summer 1998). In 1999, Bellezza is also publishing a monograph on cave paintings he has discovered in the Changthang.

(2) For references to Zhang zhung see works such as C. Beckwith’s "The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia" (Princeton University Presss: 1987); Namkhai Norbu’s "Drung, Deu and Bön" (LTWA: 1995); and Samten Karmay’s "The Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bon" (Oxford University Press: 1972). A few important references to the culture and political history of Zhang zhung in Tibetan works are "Old Tibet Chronicle", "’Bel gtam lung snying", "Zhang zhung ju thig", "bsTan byung ke ta ka’i ’phreng ba" "Byams ma", and "Rig ’dzin rig pa’i thugs rgyud".

(3) See George Roerich’s "Izbrannye Trudy" (Collected Works) (Hayka: 1967).

(4) See G. Tucci’s "Transhimalaya" (Vikas:1973).

(5) For data on Chinese archaeological discoveries in the Changthang see works such as Anne Chayet’s "Art et Archéologie du Tibet" (Picard: 1994); Sonam Wangdu’s "Art of Tibetan Rock Paintings" (Sichuan People’s Publishing House: 1994); ( "Hu Xu Tru’s "Xizang Kao Ku Da Gao" (Xizang Jenmae Tru Ban Zhu: 1973); and Li Yongxian’s "New Discoveries in Tibet" (China’s Tibet, vol. 6, 1995).

(6) General attributions aside the Mon or Monpa refers specifically to a people of eastern Bhutan, western Arunachal Pradesh and adjoining areas of Tibet. In epic literature the Monpa are an ancient people who were the enemy of the Tibetan Hero Ling Gesar.

(7) For a through explication of the dyadic functions of the important mountain and lakes in the Changthang see Bellezza’s "Divine Dyads: Ancient Civilization in Tibet".

(8) Refer to Huang Ci-xuan and Liang Yu-lian’s paper in "Geological and Ecological Studies of Qinghai-Xizang Plateau", vol. 1 (Beijing Science Press: 1981).

(9) Stelae called doring (rdo ring) in Tibetan are erected for various functions including: 1) inscribed edicts of ancient kings; 2) shrines for indigenous deities; 3) marking the foundation of houses and religious edifices; 4) funerary monuments; and 5) structural features such as corral walls.

(10)Sacred mountains in Tibet are often referred to as pillar of the sky (gnam gyi ka ba) underscoring their central importance in indigenous spatial conceptions.

(11) There are numerous works which deal with the ancient Central Asians and their burial customs. It will suffice to mention just a few such as Boris Piotrovsky’s "Scythian Art" (Phaidon: 1987); "From the Land of the Scythians" (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, new York: 1975); and "Nomads of Eurasia" (Natural History Museum, Los Angeles: 1989).

 

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