Place of Origin: Sichuan Province, China
Date: Warring States Period (5th to 2nd Century BC)
Overall Length: 565mm
This Chinese short sword of copper alloy has a distinctive hilt and a rich and varied patina. The hilt is of an uncommon form and features a peaked pommel, a studded grip (probably to receive a twine binding), and a ricasso with arched, wide shoulders and a pair of long spikes protruding on each side.
There are two published examples with this form of hilt that we can refer to. The first, illustrated in Orioli (1994, p.104, fig.13.2), is labeled as originating from Longpaozhai in Min River Valley; and the second, shown as a line drawing in Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens (2001, p.47, fig.9.d) and reproduced from Kaogou Xuebao (1977.2, p.51, fig. 16). Both examples are bi-metallic (bronze hilt and iron blade).
Stray finds of bronze hilts from bi-metallic swords from Sichuan and Yunnan are not rare; the iron blades have almost always broken off. However, extremely few are known to have blades also composed of bronze, so this sword is a scarce example. Bronze, of course, is harder than steel.
In the 1930s and 40s the archaeologist Cheng Te-k’un, surveying Sichuan Province, examined tombs consisting of pits lined with slabs of slate dug into terraces along the upper Min River. After assessing their contents, he designated these tombs as belonging to a local “Slate Tomb Culture” dating to circa 500 to 100 BCE, and linked these tombs with similar stone-lined tombs ranging northward to Manchuria. In the 1970s, Chinese archaeologists published further discoveries of stone-lined tombs in other highland river valleys of Sichuan and Yunnan. In the 1980s, Michèle Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, one of the first to summarize the Chinese reports from these tombs, was instrumental in advancing the appellation “Cist Tomb Culture” based on the construction of the tomb (i.e., a pit lined with stones) rather than the type of stone used (not necessarily slate) and further corroborated the linkage of Sichuan and Yunnan with the northern steppes via comparison of tomb artifacts.
A spectacular example of a Sichuan cist tomb is the Moutuo Tomb discovered in 1992 near Mao Xian on the upper Min River. Its description and contents were published by Lothar von Falkenhausen, who followed Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens in attributing the tomb to the “Stone-Cist Building Culture”, dating it to circa 450 BCE. Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens (2001) and Alain Thote further maintained the presence of a particular culture associated with the Sichuan cist tombs, while adjusting slightly downward dating of the Moutuo Tomb to circa 400 BCE.
Marcello Orioli, further summarising reports and drawings of finds of subsequent Chinese excavations in the mountainous regions of western Sichuan and north-western Yunnan, modified the designation of a homogenous “culture” that had been defined solely by a method of tomb construction. He pointed out that stone cist tombs were found over a wide geographical area and in varying habitation and subsistence zones corresponding to altitude, and so therefore additional cultural markers such as pottery should be more closely observed.
Nevertheless, since metal weapons could be widely distributed by way of exchange, whereas pottery would be more likely to be locally manufactured, the comparison of swords and daggers found in various cist tombs of Sichuan and Yunnan may be made here without further differentiating the cultures.