One of the big differences between ancient Chinese cities and buildings and the architecture of most other ancient civilizations is the materials they used. Chinese mainly used timbers and bricks, which makes the physical footprints of ancient Chinese civilization easier to date in time compared to the ones formed with stones.

However, a finding in the autumn of 1976 shows ancient China also had houses and a city made almost entirely of stones.

A Previously Unknown Stone City

Shimao (石峁) was a stone city built 4,300 years ago in Shenmu (神木), Shaanxi Province, home to Terracotta Warriors.

It had a total of 425 hectares of site area. In the city, workshops, residences and cemeteries were densely located, with the palace situated on an elevated plateau, while the entire city was protected by city walls.

Yet, unlike First Emperor’s Qin Dynasty, the history of which was recorded in detail, the city Shimao and the kingdom under its rule were utterly unknown to historians until 1976. Since its location is so close to the Great Wall, previously the locals thought the ruins were just part of the collapsed part of the Wall.

The City Planning Based on Star Chart

One thing that initially puzzled Chinese researchers is the orientation of the outer east gate. It doesn’t face the due east where the sun rises, not towards the due south where the nurturing qi is in abundance.

The puzzle was solved after they recreated a star chart model of 4,300 years ago when the city was built and realized the precise direction where the sun rose on the summer solstice day.

It happens the outer east gate was designed to welcome the day when the Earth’s pole had its maximum tilt toward the Sun in the year.

Evidently, ancient Chinese developed a calendar based on their advanced knowledge in astronomy at least 5,000 years ago.

Further reading:

The Oldest Mortise-Tenon System

According to Building Code & Standards (营造法式) published in the Song Dynasty, the Chinese mortise-tenon system was invented during the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago.

However, timber beams are found to be inserted into the 4,300-year-old stone structures for reinforcement purposes using the mortise-tenon connection in Shimao buildings, therefore the origin of this technique was much more ancient than previously presumed.


But would they have had a record of building code 4300 years ago?

All Things Chinese
The Book of Building Code & Standards was written 1,000 years ago about the long-established Chinese building code and standards, which Song dynasty writers didn’t invent but summarised and updated.

There is an earlier book Zhou Era’s Technologies (周礼考工记) that was published 2,000 years ago, in which a chapter is dedicated to building codes and standards practiced in the previous 1,000 years or so. As its focus is on city planning, there is no mention of the mortise and tenon techniques in the book.

This carved cylinder has a round recess in the middle of the top. It is believed that the stone cylinder actually served as a column base.

This is one of the over 70 stone carvings discovered in Shimao archaeological site.


Interesting, reminds me of the ones on Easter Island.

All Things Chinese
It’s also similar to the statues unearthed from Sanxingdui in southern China’s Sichuan Province while Shannxi is in the north.

It might suggest some superhumans or human-like aliens wandering around the earth at the time. According to Chinese mythology, prehistorical China was a multi-civilization paradise with immortals and humans living together. 😉

The Carved Stones in the Walls

Another interesting feature of the buildings in Shimao is the large number of carved stones used on the walls. The images of the carving include strange human faces and aminals.

A pair of fish carved on a stone for a building wall.

A snake caved on a stone in a building wall.

Chinese Ceramics 4,300 Years Ago

So far the oldest Chinese ceramic pieces were unearthed from Immortal’s Cave (仙人洞) in Jiangxi Province in southern inland China, which is found to have nearly 20,000 years of history. Thus it is not surprising to see a large number of ceramic articles to be excavated from Shimao.

4,300-year-old ceramic cookware found in Shimao. In one such cookware, residues of rice wine were detected.

A 4,300-year-old ceramic bird, unearthed from Shimao.

Jade in the Building Walls

One unique discovery in Shimao is — not about how exquisitely the jade articles were crafted, which they certainly were, but — where they were used. The jade pieces were concealed in stone walls as a way to ward off evil qis.

The perfect circular holes drilled in the jade articles demonstrate a rather sophisticated craft technology China possessed 4,300 years ago.

Of all the jade articles from Shimao, the most amazing ones are a pair of jade human profiles that mirror each other.

4,300-year-old Music Instruments

These flute-like music instruments unearthed from Shaimao are made with aminal bones.

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