Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Antiquities of Zhang Zhung
by John Vincent Bellezza
Edited by Geoffrey Barstow, Mickey Stockwell and Michael White
Tibetan & Himalayan Library
Published under the THL Digital Text License.


1. The Archaic Archaeological Sites of Upper Tibet

The upper portion of the Tibetan Plateau, a land of large lakes, lofty peaks, interminable plains, and deep gorges, stretches north and west of LhasaLha sa for 1500 km. Bound by high mountain ranges on all sides and averaging 4600 m above sea level, Upper Tibet gave rise to an extraordinary civilization in antiquity. Beginning about 3000 years ago, a chain of mountaintop citadels, temples, and intricate burial complexes appeared in this vast region of some 600,000 square kilometers. These monuments were part and parcel of a unique human legacy, which flourished until the Tibetan imperium and the annexation of Upper Tibet by the PugyelSpu rgyal emperors (tsenpobtsan po) of Central Tibet. Gradually the unique beliefs, customs and traditions of archaic Upper Tibet yielded to a pan-Tibetan cultural entity that arose in conjunction with Vajrayāna Buddhist teachings.

A millennium ago, Buddhist domination of Tibet spawned a new civilization, one in which the celebrated Lamaist religions of BönBon and Buddhism came to hold sway. The inexorable march of time and the ascent of the new religious order slowly but surely clouded the memory of the earlier cultural heritage. As a result, many of the ancient achievements of the Upper Tibetan people were forgotten. All that remains are preserved in the impressive monumental traces of the region. Antiquities of Zhang Zhung attempts to reclaim these past glories by systematically describing the visible physical remains left by the ancient inhabitants of Upper Tibet.

The residential and ceremonial monuments of Upper Tibet, established by what can be termed the “archaic” cultures of the region (Zhang ZhungZhang zhung and SumpaSum pa of the literary records), strongly contrast with those built in the central and eastern portions of the plateau in the same span of time. There are very substantial differences between the archaeological makeup of the archaic cultural horizon (circa 1000 BCE to 1000 CE) and that of the Lamaist era (circa 1000 CE to 1950 CE) in Upper Tibet. The unique monumental assemblage of Upper Tibet delineates the bounds of a paleocultural complex squarely based in the uplands of the plateau. The special physical hallmarks and highland homeland of this ancient culture set it apart from other Bodic cultures, which arose in the central and eastern parts of the Tibetan Plateau. The paleocultural world of Upper Tibet is readily distinguished from those civilizations that appeared in adjoining lands to the south, west and north. In the archaic cultural horizon the Upper Tibetans constructed highly durable all-stone elite residences, temples and castles, developing stone working techniques particularly suited to their extremely harsh natural environment. They also designed and built elaborate burial complexes containing many types of ritual structures made entirely of stone. The use of stone corbelling for the construction of roofs and the erection of pillars in peculiar configurations for ceremonial purposes reached a very high level of proficiency in Upper Tibet. The eminently practical qualities of this architecture have helped to insure that the remains of a surprising number of monuments have endured to the present day.

Although the design and construction of the monumental assemblage of archaic Upper Tibet is highly distinctive, affinities with other archaeological cultures of the plateau and steppes certainly exist. During the first millennium BCE and first millennium CE, a tremendous amount of cross-fertilization occurred throughout Inner Asia. These manifold cultural links are explored in depth in my last book, Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet. This monograph furnishes the analytical framework and data necessary to begin to comprehend the chronological, economic and cultural dimensions of the sites surveyed in the present work.

Antiquities of Zhang Zhung systematically describes the physical remains of 404 Upper Tibetan monumental sites documented since 2001.1 It is an inventory of archaic or prospective archaic archaeological sites. These sites differ from Lamaist monuments in terms of morphology, function, mythology, and geographic orientation. This catalogue of archaeological sites should prove useful to scholars working in a variety of disciplines. As a reference work, it is well suited to provide a perspective for subsequent studies devoted to better understanding the archaic physical and cultural environment of Upper Tibet and other regions of Inner Asia. It presents uniform sets of physical and cultural data for each of the sites surveyed to produce a coherent view of the monumental vestiges scattered across the Upper Tibetan landscape. As a compendium of archaeological sites, this work is primarily quantitative (descriptions of the remaining physical evidence) in nature. To a lesser degree, it also provides qualitative information (analyses of the ideological groundwork underlying the physical manifestations) in order to elucidate various abstract aspects of the monuments. This methodological approach, borrowing from archaeological, literary and ethnographic sources of information, permits an integral picture of ancient Upper Tibetan archaeological assets to emerge. By bringing Upper Tibet’s fascinating past into clearer focus, we begin to acquaint ourselves with the formative elements in the development of Bodic civilization. In turn, this permits us to move one step closer to understanding the Tibetan Plateau’s place in the Eurasian cultural mosaic of yore.

An inspection of the sites surveyed opens a window onto a remarkable Tibetan heritage. Rather than a cultural backwater, upland Tibet emerges as a nexus of technological and cultural brilliance. A chain of citadels circumscribing the region reflects the existence of a vibrant social order in which agriculture played a vital role. From the first millennium BCE onwards, a warrior and priestly elite appears to have founded and occupied these citadels. The sheer number of fortified sites built on summits shows that martial struggle was a prominent preoccupation (which is mirrored in the Tibetan literary record). The top strata of ancient Upper Tibetan society constructed all-stone temples and residences in which the cultural life of the region reached a crescendo. Troglodytic communities sprang up wherever there were natural caves or where it was possible to excavate earthen formations. In the cultural hothouse environment of first millennium BCE and early first millennium CE Inner Asia, Upper Tibet appears to have been one of several regions with superior intellectual and military capabilities. The legendary status accorded Zhang ZhungZhang zhung in Tibetan literature buttresses the archaeological record, indicating that Upper Tibet had indeed reached a considerable level of human attainment before the spread of Buddhism.

The existence of intricate burial rites is echoed in the many tombs and necropoli that dot the entire region. These architecturally diverse funerary sites allude to sophisticated eschatological concepts and practices prevalent in early Upper Tibet. The mortuary archaeological evidence also records yawning divisions in wealth and social status, a sign that the region possessed a hierarchical society with deep social, economic and political divisions. This puts the highland variant of Bodic civilization in line with surrounding civilizations of the Iron Age and the classical period, where social stratification, economic diversification and warfare were rampant. While many linkages between the empirical and textual perspectives remain hypothetical, the intellectual profundity of matters related to death in both the literary and archaeological records is unmistakable and very significant. In Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet, I examine the interconnections between the mortuary sites of Upper Tibet and the archaic funerary beliefs and rituals of the Tibetan texts.2

So much still needs to be discovered before we can find answers to even basic questions concerning the polity and people of ancient Upper Tibet. Nevertheless, the good news is that step-by-step an understanding of the region’s archaeological character is being secured. This increase in our knowledge should pave the way to new insights into the origins and development of Tibetan civilization, as well as to a more refined appreciation of the ancient cultural complexion of Inner Asia. It is in the service of such aims that the present work has been composed.


[1] For the findings of my earlier expeditions see: Bellezza, Antiquities of Upper Tibet; Bellezza, “Gods, Hunting and Society: Animals in the Ancient Cave Paintings of Celestial Lake in Northern Tibet,” East and West52 (2002): 347-396; Bellezza, Antiquities of Northern Tibet; Bellezza, “Bon Rock Paintings at gNam mtsho: Glimpses of the Ancient Religion of Northern Tibet,” Rock Art Research17, no. 1 (2000): 35-55; Bellezza, “A Preliminary Archaeological Survey of Da rog mtsho,” The Tibet Journal24, no. 1 (1999): 56-90; Bellezza, “Notes on Three Series of Unusual Symbols Discovered on the Byang thang,” East and West47, nos. 1-4 (1997): 395-405; Bellezza, Divine Dyads.
[2] Another crucial archaeological asset of Upper Tibet is rock art, which provides a rich record of the archaic way of life in the region. Dozens of sites in which petroglyphs and pictographs document social, religious and economic facets of early life are distributed over much of Upper Tibet. This graphic evidence also reveals the existence of a distinctive paleoculture, one with strong affinities to surrounding peoples but with it's own idiosyncratic qualities, setting Upper Tibet apart from the steppes and more eastern regions of the plateau. Rock art, a prime indicator of aesthetic values, defines the uniqueness of early Upper Tibet as much as its monumental assemblages. The rock art tableaux spectacularly depict the vitality, resourcefulness and stamina of the past inhabitants of the region. This is certainly something that modern day Tibetans can take pride in and something in which the rest of the world can marvel. A comprehensive inventory of Upper Tibetan rock art was also conducted and will constitute the contents of another volume in the present series in due course.

Note Citation for Page

John Vincent Bellezza, Antiquities of Zhang Zhung: A Comprehensive Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Archaeological Monuments on the Tibetan Upland (Charlottesville, VA: Tibetan & Himalayan Library, 2010), .

Bibliographic Citation

John Vincent Bellezza. Antiquities of Zhang Zhung: A Comprehensive Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Archaeological Monuments on the Tibetan Upland. Charlottesville, VA: Tibetan & Himalayan Library, 2010.