Erlitou is a very large Bronze Age site located in the Yilou basin of the Yellow River, about 10 kilometers southwest of Yanshi City in Henan Province of China. Erlitou has long been associated with the Xia or early Shang Dynasty, but can be more neutrally known as the type site of the Erlitou culture. Erlitou was occupied between about 3500-1250 BC. During its heyday (ca 1900-1600 BC) the city included an area of almost 300 hectares, with deposits in some places up to 4 meters deep. Palatial buildings, royal tombs, bronze foundries, paved roads, and rammed earth foundations attest to the complexity and importance of this early central place.
The earliest occupations at Erlitou date to the Neolithic Yangshao culture [3500-3000 BC], and Longshan culture [3000-2500 BC] followed by a 600 year period of abandonment. The Erlitou settlement began about 1900 BC. The city rose steadily in importance, becoming the primary center in in the region by about 1800 BC. During the Erligang period [1600-1250 BC], the city decreased in importance and was abandoned.
Erlitou has eight identified palaces--large scale buildings with elite architecture and artifacts--three of which have been fully excavated, the most recent in 2003. Excavations indicate that the city was planned with specialized buildings, a ceremonial area, attached workshops, and a central palatial complex enclosing two rammed-earth foundation palaces. Elite burials were placed within the courtyards of these palaces, accompanied by grave goods such as bronzes, jades, turquoise, and lacquer wares. Other tombs were discovered scattered throughout the site rather than in a cemetery precinct.
Erlitou also had a planned grid of roads. An intact section of parallel wagon tracks, 1 meter wide and 5 meters long, is the earliest known evidence of a wagon in China. Other parts of the city contain the remains of smaller dwellings, craft workshops, pottery kilns and tombs. Important craft areas include a bronze casting foundry and a turquoise workshop.
Erlitou is known for its bronzes: the earliest bronze vessels cast in China were made in the foundries at Erlitou. The first bronze vessels were made expressly for the ritual consumption of wine, which was probably based on rice or wild grape.
Is Erlitou Xia or Shang?
Scholarly debate continues concerning whether Erlitou is best considered Xia or Shang Dynasty. In fact, Erlitou is central to the discussion concerning whether the Xia dynasty exists at all. The earliest known bronzes in China were cast in Erlitou; and its complexity argues that it had a state level of organization. Xia is listed in Zhou dynasty records as being the first of the bronze age societies; but scholars are divided as to whether this culture existed as a separate entity from the earliest Shang or was a political fiction created by the Zhou dynasty leaders to cement their control.
Erlitou was first discovered in 1959 and has been excavated for decades.
Allan, Sarah 2007 Erlitou and the Formation of Chinese Civilization: Toward a New Paradigm. The Journal of Asian Studies 66:461-496.
Liu, Li and Hong Xu 2007 Rethinking Erlitou: legend, history and Chinese archaeology. Antiquity 81:886–901.
Yuan, Jing and Rowan Flad 2005 New zooarchaeological evidence for changes in Shang Dynasty animal sacrifice. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24(3):252-270.
Yang, Xiaoneng. 2004. Erlitou Site at Yanshi. Entry 43 in Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: New Perspectives on China's Past. Yale University Press, New Haven.
This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.