Discovery of a Lost City: City Song

The walls of the lost Eastern Zhou City Song (here outlined in red), discovered by the Early Shang project, enclosed an area of 10.2 square km (= 3.9 sq. miles). Several gaps located in the wall may have been city gates.


In the spring of 1996, the Shangqiu Project team discovered a thick rammed earth feature while doing wide-diameter geological cores from a truck-mounted rig. This feature began five meters below the ground surface and continued down for another seven meters in depth. Coring teams traced this feature outward, and were soon able to plot a long, north-south wall. Two more seasons of coring traced not only the complete length of this wall, which extended for over three kilometers, but also three other walls of what we now know to be a city of the Eastern Zhou period, City Song, capital of the Song state established for the descendants of the Shang. The city is rhomboidal in shape with the east and west walls oriented close to northeast. The lengths of the walls measure 3,010 meters (west wall), 3,252 meters (north), 2,900 meters (east), and 3,350 meters (south), enclosing an area of 10.2 square kilometers (3.9 square miles). Cores showed that City Song’s walls stood roughly 10 meters high. They were 12-15 meters in breadth across the top of the wall and probably ca. 25 meters in breadth at the base. Coring also revealed gaps in certain parts of the walls, 12-30 meters wide, whose structure and placement suggest that they were city gates. There were at least three of these gaps in the west wall and one at the west end of both the north wall and the south wall. Cores directly to the exterior of the south wall also showed that there was a moat outside the city wall.

Cross section from one of the Early Shang project's excavation trenches through the Eastern Zhou wall of City Song showing the wall's construction and repair phases. Parts of the wall may date to the Western Zhou period, when City Song was first constructed following the Shang conquest by the Zhou, ca. 1045 BC.Three exploratory trenches were dug through the south and west walls in 1997 to better understand the construction sequence and dating of the wall. Because of the relatively high water table in the Shangqiu area and the danger of wall collapse, the excavations could only proceed to a depth of 5-7 meters, leaving another 4-5 meters to the base of the wall. It became clear in the excavations that the wall was not built during a single construction episode.

Prof. Gao Tianlin 高天麟 (Institute of Archaeology, CASS), shows an exposed part of the rammed earth wall of City Song outside of Shangqiu, Henan.Different phases of wall construction and repair can be detected through changes in the color and texture of the rammed earth and the way in which the tamped layers were formed (including changes in their thickness, slope, distinctiveness, and ramming tool marks). At least six different types of rammed earth, each representing different episodes of construction and repair, were found. Cultural materials recovered from within the rammed earth layers of the city wall included ceramic roof tiles and pottery sherds.Layers of the rammed earth wall of City Song were visible in some exposed sections. Here, ca. 2,500-year-old impressions of the ramming tool can be seen.These could be dated mostly to the Eastern Zhou period. One construction phase was found to contain many sherds that dated to no later than the Spring and Autumn 春秋 period (ca. 770-475 BC). There was also a small amount of sherds that dated earlier than the Spring and Autumn period. A stratigraphically earlier construction phase contained a large number of pottery sherds that dated no later than the Western Zhou period (ca. 1045-770 BC). It thus appears that at least one phase of this wall’s construction dates to before the Spring and Autumn period and may extend back to the period of the Shang dynasty’s fall and the beginning of the Western Zhou Dynasty, just as would be expected for City Song.

The Early Shang Project coring team traces the course of the buried rammed earth wall of City Song using Luoyang spades.The significance of finding this large city from the Eastern Zhou—and possibly Western Zhou—periods cannot be over stated. There is no reason to believe that the city walls found at Shangqiu are those of any other city than City Song itself, the same majestic capital of the state of Song described in the Zuo zhuan 左传 and other Eastern Zhou and Han sources. City Song had been lost for over two millennia, until struck by the coring rig. City Song is a spectacular discovery in its own right, but for the Shangqiu Project’s goal of locating Great City Shang, this discovery takes on even deeper significance. As City Song was built for the descendants of Shang on the site of their ancestral ritual center, Great City Shang, finding City Song may mean that we are but one step away from finding the early Shang city.

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