When Sheldon Gosline was living in China in 2013 to study the country’s lesser-used languages, a colleague at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences showed him a mysterious set of ancient inscriptions, etched into flat stones and found by farmers in Guangxi province.
“He said, ‘See what you make of this,’” Gosline remembers. “No one has been able to figure this out.”
When Gosline looked at the inscriptions, he noticed something no one else had. Several characters appeared to belong to the Indus script, an undeciphered set of symbols that date back more than 4,500 years. Others could have been Persian cuneiform, turned on their sides. It was the first clue that led him to a lush mountain plateau, overlooking a river valley, where he found what he believes could be the ceremonial grounds of an ancient civilization.
It was the stuff of Indiana Jones dreams. Gosline's training is in Egyptology, but as a unaffiliated researcher he has dabbled widely in ancient history. For more than a decade, he has been playing with the idea that the earliest writing in China could be connected to writing from the Indus Valley, where an early civilization stretched across parts of India and Pakistan. Writing didn’t appear in China until more than a thousand years later, in the second millennium B.C. There’s little evidence of how it was developed, and no evidence that languages from further to the west had any influence.
But if Indus or Persian characters had made their way to southern China, it would suggest, at the very least, that the people living there had an extensive trade network that connected them, perhaps indirectly, to South Asia and the Middle East. At most, it could mean that imperial conquerors from northern China had wiped out evidence of a thriving writing culture in the south. Either way, it would undermine a traditional way of understanding China’s history, where Chinese culture was developed exclusively in the north and diffused outwards.
Gosline’s discovery raised questions with huge implications. What was Persian cuneiform doing in a remote village in southern China? Could it be real? If it was real, what did it mean?
Dragon Bones and Text
In the great tech story that is the 5,000-year-old history of writing, ancient Sumerians were the early adopters. The first examples of writing appeared in Mesopotamia, around 3,500 to 3,000 B.C.; Egyptian, not far behind, was either developed independently or cribbed from the Sumerians in an early case of intellectual property theft. In China, the first comprehensive writing system appears a good millennia and a half later, around 1,200 B.C., with no obvious reference to any other writing system in existence. As far as the archaeological records shows, Chinese characters sprang fully formed from the earth, on “dragon bones.”
For who knows how long, farmers dug these bones, the remains of turtles and oxen, from their fields and sold them to practitioners of traditional medicine. It wasn’t until 1899, after either being prescribed the bones as a malaria treatment or, less romantically, buying them from an antiques dealer, that a scholar recognized their inscriptions as early forms of Chinese characters. Dragon bone dealers tried to keep their locations secret, but in the 1920s, a team of archaeologists discovered the bones’ source, at Anyang, a site a few hours south of Beijing, in the Yellow River basin, where they found thousands upon thousands of dragon bones, all carefully inscribed with prophecies from the past.
The bones, they determined, had been used to read the future. Ox scapulae and the plates of turtle shells would be thrown into a fire and the cracks that developed interpreted as augurs. Whatever the bones foretold would later be carved onto their surface. Some had etched on them names of the soothsaying kings, too, and now, instead of the future, those inscriptions shed light on the past. The kings’ names matched with later records of a Shang Dynasty that had ruled in the second millennium B.C.
Before, the Shang dynasty had been more legend than history, but the discovery of the “oracle bones” shored up a long-held tenet of Chinese history: China’s Yellow River basin, where the oracle bones were discovered, was the cradle of Chinese civilization. From this northern area came China’s Confucianism, its structured societies, its technological innovations, its heroes and kings. Slowly, that culture was spread through the area we now call China, starting under the expansionist Han empire that ruled from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D.
One of the original inscriptions found in Guangxi. (Photo: Sheldon Gosline)
The inscriptions Gosline had been given, though, came from the south of China, in Guangxi province, which borders on Vietnam. Guangxi is about as far from Henan, where the oracle bones were discovered, as Kansas City is from New York, and in the annals of Chinese history, this area was considered a backwater. It’s a mountainous region, and even today, it’s less industrialized than other parts of China and pocketed with nature reserves.
Both because of the subtropical climate and because of its history, little archaeological work has been done in Guangxi. But, if a century ago dragon bones dug from a field could lead archaeologists to one of the oldest known dynasties of northern China, perhaps stone inscriptions dug from southern fields might lead to another great discovery, a place and people that had been overlooked.
If, that is, these new inscriptions were even real artifacts of another age. “Some people wanted to write the inscriptions off as a complete forgery,” says Gosline. Originally, he was skeptical, as well, but he became convinced they might be authentic. Those first examples might have been brought in by farmers, but he had found more of the Persian-looking characters in inscriptions uncovered in an official archaeological dig of the same area. If the inscriptions were a forgery, the culprit would have had to bury those fragments in a way that fooled archaeologists. Usually, too, forgers will copy published texts, but Chinese scholars had never seen anything like these. The rotation of the Persian-like characters, 90 degrees from their proper position, also convinced Gosline that the inscriptions were real.
“Why would a forger go through that elaborate disguise, of hiding that it's old Persian?” he says. “The simple solution is that it's genuine and, somehow, in antiquity, there was some sort of trading or culture connection with the Persian empire.”
Guangxi, where Gosline's inscriptions were found, is far from the Yellow River basin, long thought of as the cradle of Chinese civilization. (Map design: Blake Olmstead)
Then, Gosline made a discovery of his own. In the spring of 2014, he traveled south, to an excavation site opened by local archaeologists, in the same area where those first stones had been found. Gosline doubted he might find anything of interest here, until he started walking the site, and he noticed the rocks. Hulking, some almost as tall as he was, they were spaced symmetrically, in even intervals, and seemed to be arranged purposefully—like they lined up, along particular diagonals. Many of them were lined with deep crevasses. Could they be inscriptions, too? “It was evident to me that the space was somehow special,” Gosline would later write. That’s when he got a piece of paper and started to map.
He noted the regularly spaced markers, along with what he describes as “a man-made platform of megalithic construction.” Behind that platform, there was another stone, with an indentation at the center—what “appeared to be a carved chair or throne.” He sat down, and when he looked up, towards the platform, he “sensed a harmony and that I was in the midst of an ancient time calculating device,” he would write. On a rock at the very center of the site was a particularly notable set of lines: later, Gosline would identify an inscription there—the Chinese character for “harmony.”