Anau seal inscriptions bear possible Chinese connection

By CAI YUNZHANG / 01-12-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

The Anau seal and its incised design Photo: Courtesy of CAI YUNZHANG

In June 2000, during an archeological excavation at the Anau site in Turkmenistan, Dr. Fredrik T. Hiebert of the University of Pennsylvania found a polished seal made of jet or lignite beneath the ruins of several adobe houses. The seal has a square face of side length slightly less than 1 inch. A waniu-like [waniu refers to a tile-shaped curved perforated boss, a traditional Chinese seal stamp design] perforated boss is present on the back of the seal. The seal is inscribed with five symbols, embedded within which are traces of a red pigment or mineral. Radiocarbon dating of relics unearthed together with the seal dates it to approximately 2300 BCE. The discovery of this seal has aroused heated discussions in Chinese and overseas academia.

Li Xueqin (1933–2019), a renowned Chinese historian, pointed out that the shape and form of this seal bear no similarities to the seals of West Asia, the Indus Valley, and other surrounding places. Instead, the design of its square face and the waniu-like perforated boss are very similar to Chinese seals dated later in history. The red pigment embedded in the seal further supports this possible connection. The age of this seal is much older than oracle bone script, the earliest known Chinese script. The inscriptions on the seal can be decomposed into “five” symbols based on the connection of strokes. Interestingly, these five symbols of different shapes can all be found in Chinese prehistoric pottery inscriptions.

Interpretations and speculations

This paper attempts to briefly interpret these symbols based on Li Xueqin’s research.

First, the seal was probably a ceremonial tool used in rituals and worship of the gods. The red pigment in the incised strokes once puzzled Li. In fact, traces of cinnabar are common on ancient Chinese ritual vessels used for worshiping gods. The engraved symbols found on pottery zun [a Chinese ritual bronze or ceramic wine vessel] of the Dawenkou Culture (c. 4200–2500 BCE) are often surrounded by traces of red pigment, adding a sense of mystery. These pottery zun are ritual vessels for worshiping the sun god. On a fragment of a ceramic pot unearthed from the ruins of the ancient city of Taosi [in Shanxi Province], the characters “Wen Yao” written with cinnabar indicates that the pot was a ritual vessel for worshiping Emperor Yao [a legendary Chinese ruler, probably a tribe leader of prehistoric China].

Second, the content of the incised symbols should match the function of this seal. The first symbol is a vertical stroke with hooks in opposite directions on its upper and lower ends. Li regarded this symbol as the Chinese character “乙.” Similar symbols have been found on the painted pottery unearthed from the Jiangzhai site [in Lintong, Shaanxi Province] of the Yangshao Culture (c. 5000–3000 BCE), as well as the pottery unearthed from the Banpo site [at Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, existed approximately 4900–4000 BCE] and the Shuangdun Neolithic site [at Bengbu, Anhui Province]. According to Shuowen Jiezi, an ancient Chinese dictionary compiled in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), The character “乙” originally refers to plants sprouting in spring and struggling to grow. This suggests that the time to worship the gods should be in mid-spring when plants struggle to grow.

The second symbol, which Li tried to link with the Chinese character “木,” is complicated. Similar symbols have been found on painted pottery unearthed from the Jiangzhai site. Because the structure and form of the Anau symbol resemble that of the radical of characters “杜” “柜” and “桐” written in ancient seal script [a type of Chinese script formed in the 8th–3rd centuries BCE, derived from seal inscriptions], it is likely to be the character “木.” In Shuowen Jiezi, the original meaning of the character “木” is that everything begins to grow in great profusion when spring blooms again. This symbol is located in the center of the seal, occupying nearly half of the seal face, indicating that it is not an ordinary god, but the spring god.

Li believes that the third symbol represents the Chinese character “五.” The same symbol can be seen on the painted ceramic pots of Majiayao culture (c. 3300–2050 BCE) unearthed from Liuwan, Qinghai Province. This kind of symbol is commonly found on the pottery of Daxi Culture [a Neolithic culture centered in the middle Yangtze River roughly between 4400–3300 BCE], Liangzhu Culture [a Neolithic culture centered in the Qiantang River basin between 3300–2300 BCE], and Longshan Culture [a late Neolithic culture in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River approximately between 2500–2000 BCE]. Due to its close resemblance to the character “五” written in oracle bone script and Chinese bronze inscriptions of the Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) and Zhou (1046–256 BCE) dynasties, this symbol may be the Chinese character “五.”

The fourth symbol, what Li called the Chinese character “一,” can be found on pottery of many different cultures. It resembles the character “一” written in oracle bone script and bronze inscriptions of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The symbol regarded as “五” and this symbol are arranged vertically on the seal face. Such a combination is usually read as “五十一” [fifty-one] in Chinese, which is quite common in oracle bone script and bronze inscriptions of the Shang and Zhou eras. One possible meaning of this combination is that fifty-one offerings are presented to the spring god.

Li noted that the last symbol was also found on painted pottery of Machang style [a special type of Yangshao culture discovered in Gansu and Qinghai provinces] unearthed from Liuwan, but he refrained from interpreting it. A close examination of the symbol shows that it is similar to the character “匸” in oracle bone inscriptions and bronze inscriptions. This character has been frequently seen in oracle bone inscriptions unearthed from Yin Xu [the site of the Shang capital at Anyang, Henan Province], with its opening facing either left or right. “匸” should be pronounced as kuang, the same as the character “筐” [basket]. Shuowen Jiezi explains this character as an item in which something can be stored. The symbol on the seal may refer to containers for food when worshiping the spring god.

So, what offerings are in this basket? According to Liji [Book of Rites, a collection of texts about the administration and ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty], food mainly composed of wheat and mutton should be served to gods Tai Hao and Gou Mang in spring; the containers for offerings should allow air to pass through, and the lines carved on them should be thick and sparse. Food made of wheat and mutton is typical of West Asian diets. Goats were domesticated as early as 9,000 years ago on the Iranian Plateau. About 8,000 years ago, people began to cultivate barley and wheat in West Asia. Therefore, storing food made of wheat and mutton in a basket was in line with the daily habits of the ancient people in Central Asia.

In conclusion, the possible meaning of these incised symbols is: In the spring when all things sprout, fifty-one baskets of food offerings should be presented to the god in charge of plant growth.

Age of Anau seal

The purpose of the Anau seal inscriptions is to worship the spring god, pray for flourishing plants and a bumper harvest. Therefore, it is meaningful to clarify the age of the seal.

The shape and incised symbols of the Anau seal are quite different from those of the Sumerian cylinder seals of about 5,300 years ago. However, similar shapes and symbols can be found on prehistoric Chinese seals and on those of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Chinese seals have a long history. A stone seal unearthed from the Peiligang cultural site in Henan, dated to over 8,000 years ago, is engraved with the character “乙.” This is the earliest known example of a stone seal in China.

The Seima-Turbino Culture is an early Bronze Age culture in the Eurasian Steppes, existing between 4,200–1,800 years ago. More than ten socketed spearheads with single side hooks, the most iconic artifact of the Seima-Turbino Culture, have been found in Gansu, Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Henan provinces. The age of the Anau seal is close to the time when the Seima-Turbino spears expanded eastward. It suggests that as early as four or five thousand years ago, Eastern and Western cultures began to communicate with each other. It is possible that the Anau seal may be a precious cultural relic left in the Anau area by merchants or tribes who moved westward from the Central Plain 4,300 years ago.

Cai Yunzhang is a research fellow from the Luoyang Municipal Institute of Archaeology.