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.

2. An Introduction to the Author’s Archaeological Exploration of Upper Tibet and Survey Methodology3

List of Archaeological Survey Expeditions:

  • 1992: Four Fountains of Tibet Expedition (FFTE)
  • 1994: Divine Dyads Expedition, year one (DDE1)
  • 1995: Divine Dyads Expedition, year two (DDE2)
  • 1997: Changthang Phase II Expedition, year one (CPE1)
  • 1998: Changthang Phase II Expedition, year two (CPE2)
  • 1999: Changthang Circuit Expedition (CCE)
  • 2000: Upper Tibet Circumnavigation Expedition (UTCE)
  • 2001: Upper Tibet Antiquities Expedition (UTAE)
  • 2001: Shang Shung Institute Expedition (SSI)
  • 2002: High Tibet Circle Expedition (HTCE)
  • 2003: High Tibet Antiquities Expedition (HTAE)
  • 2004: High Tibet Welfare Expedition (HTWE)
  • 2005: Tibet Upland Expedition (TUE)
  • 2006: Tibet Ice Lakes Expedition (TILE)
  • 2006: Tibet Highland Expedition (THE)
  • 2007: Wild Yak Lands Expedition (WYLE)

In 2001, I launched the four-month long Upper Tibet Antiquities Expedition (UTAE), which clocked around 8500 km in vehicles and significant distances on foot and on horseback. On the UTAE, 90 archaeological sites were documented in BaryangBar yangs, PurangPu rang, KhyunglungKhyung lung, GugéGu ge lho smad, ChusumChu gsum, GötsangRgod tshang, northern RutokRu thog, Naktsang RongmarNag tshang rong dmar, and Dangra YutsoDang ra g.yu mtsho. In 2002, I set off on the High Tibet Circle Expedition (HTCE), which was of four months duration as well.4 This expedition yielded information on more than 100 archaeological sites, the overwhelming majority of which had never been documented. On the HTCE, I covered 13,200 km by motor vehicle, and trekked considerable distances on foot and on horseback. The main thrust of exploration included BaryangBar yangs, Langa TsoLa snga mtsho, Gang RinpochéGangs rin po che, ZarangZa rang, RutokRu thog, northern GertséSger rtse, Ngangla RingtsoNgang la ring mtsho, TsochenMtsho chen, Dangra YutsoDang ra g.yu mtsho, the TagoRta rgo range, and BartaBar tha. In 2003, I conducted exploration on the High Tibet Antiquities Expedition (HTAE), which lasted 48 days.5 On the HTAE, around 40 archaeological sites were documented by traveling more than 8000 km by motor vehicle. The geographic focus of exploration was the border areas situated in RutokRu thog, TsamdaRtsa mda’ and PurangSpu rang, marking the first access to many of these sectors by an outsider in 60 years.

In 2004, I launched a three-month mission to Upper Tibet called the High Tibet Welfare Expedition (HTWE). The HTWE was carried out with the purpose of reconnoitering areas of Upper Tibet not previously visited or where more inquiry was required. The main areas for research and exploration included Damzhung’Dam gzhung, YakpaG.yag pa, southern TsonyiMtsho gnyis, Dangra YutsoDang ra g.yu mtsho, TsochenMtsho chen, SenkhorBse ’khor, ZhungpaGzhung pa, RutokRu thog, GarSgar, and TsamdaRtsa mda’. In 2005, I embarked on the 45-day long Tibet Upland Expedition (TUE), in order to survey sites across the breadth of much of Upper Tibet not reached on earlier campaigns. By continually making forays, I have been able to close the gaps in the geographic coverage of the region. Slowly but surely, I have now visited most of the major basins and valleys of Upper Tibet south of the 33rd parallel.

In the winter of 2006, I conducted the four-week long Tibet Ice Lakes Expedition (TILE) in order to reach six islands in four different lakes. By traversing the frozen surfaces of the lakes, I was able to survey SemodoSe mo do (NamtsoGnam mtsho), DotagaDo rta sga and DodrilbuDo dril bu (DaroktsoDa rog mtsho), TsodoMtsho do (Tsomo Ngangla RingtsoNgang la ring mtsho), and DoserDo ser and DomukDo smug (Langak TsoLa ngag mtsho). In the spring of 2006, I completed the basic survey work, a 12-year enterprise. Known as the Tibet Highland Expedition (THE), the object of this 46-day 2006 excursion was to carry out reconnaissance in the northern JangtangByang thang, and to visit a few outstanding archaeological sites. In 2007, on the Wild Yak Lands Expedition (WYLE) (45 days in length), I reconnoitered parts of the northern JangtangByang thang and documented a handful of archaic sites in GugéGu ge and other locations.

In surveys conducted since 2001, I have endeavored to expand and strengthen the methodological tools at my disposal. It has been necessary to further systematize the collection of data and to articulate these in forms that make it accessible to a wider range of Tibetologists, archaeologists and cultural historians. The survey data thus compiled have permitted the various types of archaeological assets present in the region, their patterns of distribution, environmental context, and structural qualities to be elucidated in greater clarity. Another vital component of this appraisal of Upper Tibetan archaeological sites has been the compilation of chronometric data derived from the radiometric and AMS assaying of organic samples. To date, 21 samples have been submitted for chronometric testing and analysis, permitting the initial direct dating of a few documented sites. This augmented methodological approach to the survey work has enabled the positioning of the sites chronicled within a more refined chronological context, opening the way to new perspectives in the study of Tibetan textual sources. Generally speaking, these breakthroughs in the study of Upper Tibetan cultural development pertain to temporal controls, which encompass both the prehistoric and historic epochs.

The methodological regimen applied to the survey of monuments (residential and ceremonial) can be summarized as follows:

  1. The pinpointing of the geographic coordinates, elevation and administrative location of each site. The determination of latitude, longitude and elevation was accomplished with the use of a GPS. In locating sites, reference is made to toponymic nomenclature employed in both historical (traditional) and Communist (modern) political geography.
  2. A description of the geographic and ecological settings of archaeological sites. In order to understand the physical environment shaping the function and placement of monuments, attention has been paid to slope gradients, general soil conditions, prominent landforms in the proximity, geomorphologic changes, and the endowment of natural resources.
  3. The identification of the monumental types found at each archaeological site. This is carried out using a comprehensive typology of above-ground archaeological resources devised for Upper Tibet (see Section 5).
  4. An analysis of the morphological, design and constructional traits of each structural component of an archaeological site. A study of how monuments were built and the types of materials that went into their construction is vital in differentiating the various typologies. The investigative focus has been directed towards determining ground plans, wall fabrics, the rendering and presentation of structures, patterns of usage, and the spatial arrangements of the various structural components making up a site.
  5. The measurement of site dispersals and the dimensions of constituent structures. The overall extent of sites (measured in square meters), and the length, width, height, and girth of monuments and their respective components.
  6. The mapping of monuments (plans and topographic settings). Save for sketches of a few ground plans, the cartographic dimension has thus far been limited to overview and typological maps of archaeological sites.
  7. The photography of the general settings of sites, all visible archaeological remains, and the current cultural scene.
  8. The compilation of folklore, myths, legends, and historical accounts surrounding archaeological sites. I have endeavored to collect the local oral traditions attached to the monuments surveyed in order to gain a firmer understanding of the chronology, function and significance of sites as conceived by indigenous sources.
  9. The collection and translation of Tibetan textual sources pertinent to the function, cultural make-up, political affiliation, and chronology of monuments and the physical sites in which they are located. This facet of study defines the interface between empirical and traditional historiographic approaches to understanding Upper Tibet’s archaeological heritage.
  10. An assessment of contemporary anthropogenic and environmental risks to the continued survival of archaeological monuments. This proactive component of research concerns issues related to the conservation and sustainability of archaeological assets.

The interrelated methodological regimen used in the surveys of rock art can be summarized as follows:

  1. The pinpointing of the geographic coordinates, elevation and administrative location of each rock art site.
  2. A description of the geographic and ecological settings of rock art sites.
  3. An analysis of the physical characteristics, relative locations and techniques of manufacture of rock art.
  4. The measurement of rock panels and individual compositions.
  5. The mapping of rock art sites (geographic locations).
  6. The photography of the general settings of rock art sites, individual compositions and the current culture-scape.
  7. The compilation of folklore, myths, legends, and historical accounts surrounding rock art sites.
  8. The collection and translation of Tibetan textual sources pertinent to the function, cultural orientation, political affiliation, and chronology of rock art sites and individual compositions.
  9. An assessment of contemporary anthropogenic and environmental risks to the continued survival of rock art.

I have undertaken to document every visible archaeological site of the archaic cultural horizon on the vast Tibetan upland and, while falling short of this ambitious goal, more than 600 monumental sites and 50 rock art sites have been surveyed throughout the region. How many other archaic sites with visible above-ground footprints exist in Upper Tibet remains to be determined. In particular, there must be many dozens of ancient burial grounds that have yet to be charted. This is indicated by the sheer number of tombs already documented, the oral tradition that holds that tombs are distributed all over Upper Tibet, and the practical difficulties in locating structures with little or no protrusion above the ground surface. The geographical thoroughness of the survey work, however, indicates that a statistically significant cross-section of monument types and rock art has been documented.

Over 90% of the sites chronicled in this inventory have not been identified or studied by other research teams. Rather than the application of remote sensing tools and aerial surveys to identify archaic cultural horizon archaeological assets in Upper Tibet, I took upon myself the laborious and time-consuming task of comprehensive field inspections. Visible detection of sites was facilitated in most places in Upper Tibet by poorly developed alpine and steppe soils, sparse vegetation cover, and high rates of surface erosion. As in any region, a percentage of the total number of Upper Tibetan archaeological assets is not amenable to surface detection. The percentage of sites that were overlooked because of the lack of visual apprehension, however, appears to be relatively low in the JangtangByang thang (given its prevailing topographic and vegetative features). Conversely, in the badlands of GugéGu ge, a region of thick alluvial deposits and the regular occurrence of landslides, a much higher percentage of archaeological remains are probably obscured from view. A significant number of archaeological sites may have been overlooked in the still active agricultural communities of far western Tibet and Lake DangraDang ra. In these regions it is plausible that successive layers of human occupation have been hidden from view by the structural overlay of contemporary settlement.

The field inspection of archaeological remains has the advantage of furnishing positive identification and the procurement of definitive empirical information. The field surveys entailed visiting virtually every one of the approximately 250 townships (reckoned according to the number of townships existing prior to the 1999-2001 period of administrative consolidation in the TAR) in the 17 counties that comprise Upper Tibet west of NakchuNag chu city. During this twelve year campaign, I have spent nearly four years in the field, and covered more than eighty thousand kilometers by vehicle, and at least another eight thousand kilometers on foot and on horseback. In order to locate archaeological sites, individual and collective interviews were conducted in all county seats, as well as in many township headquarters, monasteries, local villages, and pastoral settlements. In the course of interviews with over 5000 people, I have met with a wide range of civil officials, monks, lay practitioners, farmers, and herders. Special emphasis was placed on allocating time to speak to those locally recognized as the most knowledgeable in their respective communities. The meticulous geographic coverage of the surveys, accomplished by canvassing large swaths of territory upwards of three to seven times each, has proven invaluable in understanding the geographic distribution of the various types of archaic cultural horizon archaeological assets in Upper Tibet.


[3] Much of this section of the work was taken from the text of Bellezza, Zhang Zhung.
[4] On the autumn phase of this expedition, I was accompanied by Döndrup LhagyelDon grub lha rgyal, a highly skilled researcher at the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences.
[5] On this expedition, I had the good fortune of being accompanied by Könchok GyatsoDkon mchog rgya mtsho, a research scholar at the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences.

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.