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.

II. Ceremonial Monuments

II.2) Superficial structures

Superficial structures mostly consisting of stone enclosures, many of which appear to be the superstructures of tombs or funerary ritual venues, are found all over Upper Tibet. In this work 92 such sites are detailed. Without the benefit of excavation, the analysis of subsurface grave architecture and the study of grave goods, the typological classification proposed here must be seen as provisional. It is based on a visual appraisal of the morphology, orientation and constructional qualities of the various kinds of superficial structures, and makes no provision for chronological development or cultural affiliation. Superficial structures are found in large numbers throughout Upper Tibet, demonstrating that burial was once a dominant form of corpse disposal in the region. The archaeological evidence shows that the culture of burial spread widely and took a number of distinctive forms in the region. Very significant chronological, social, economic and even cultural variability is likely reflected in the diverse types of tombs found in Upper Tibet. It has not yet been determined which funerary superficial structures overlie tombs and which were only used in mortuary rites.

Superficial structures are frequently attributed in the oral tradition to the MönMon in all areas east of the 89th meridian. They are commonly labeled möndurmon dur (MönMon tombs), mönpé durkhungmon pa’i dur khung (tombs of the MönMon), möndomon rdo (MönMon stones), mönramon ra (MönMon enclosures), and mönkhangmon khang (MönMon houses). In the eastern JangtangByang thang, the MönMon do not figure as a legendary motif; rather, large tomb complexes are often fancied to be the remains of monasteries that were destroyed by Mongol groups such as the 18th century CE Jungarjun gar.

II.2a) Single-course quadrate, ovoid and irregularly shaped structures (slab wall and flush-block constructions)

In regions of the JangtangByang thang, west of the 89th meridian, stone enclosures, consisting of a single line of stones embedded in the ground, occur with much frequency. Among these diverse constructions are walls forming perimeters as well as single line stone walls subdividing enclosures into smaller units. These walls are built from naturally occurring chunks of stone, hewn stone blocks, cobbles, and slabs of stone set in the ground edgewise. The most eye-catching among the enclosures are those formed from slabs of stone that project prominently from the surface. A large range of locally available lithic materials were used in construction. It is not unusual for a single enclosure to have been built with more than one type of rock, such as limestone and sandstone together. These fencing stones vary from under 10 cm to over 1m in length. The individual stones of the walls are level with the adjoining terrain or project 10 cm to 60 cm above it. The enclosures vary greatly in shape and include ovoid, sub-rectangular, rectangular, square and irregular forms. Individual structures are between 2 m and over 25 m in length. The sheer differences in scale and the resources needed to build these structures may suggest significant socioeconomic variability. Many of the superstructures are flush with the surrounding ground but others are significantly elevated above it to a height of 1 m or more. There is a continuous elevational progression between the enclosures and burial mounds (bangsobang so). Inside some enclosures, a small ring or mound of stones seems to mark the actual location of a burial chamber.

II.2b) Double-course quadrate, ovoid and irregularly shaped structures (slab wall and flush-block constructions)

This monument subtype shares the same morphological, constructional and dimensional traits of the single-course walled enclosures, save that the perimeter walls are made with two stone courses running parallel to one another. The walls thus created are between 30 cm and 1.2 m in width. As these walls are inherently more substantial and better developed than single lines of stones, there are many more design variations among them. Most perimeter walls consist of a single layer of prone or upright stones embedded in the ground. In other examples, courses of blocks or slabs were laid flat in successive vertical courses (consisting of two to five layers of stones). These enclosures can quite closely resemble the footings of residential structures (see D-115). In other enclosures, three or more rows of blocks or upright slabs were arrayed in lateral rows to form walls (see D-45). At still other sites, row after row of small stones was stuck in the ground to blanket much of the interior of an enclosure (see D-107). The largest complexes of enclosures feature neatly built double-course walls constructed with cobbles, which sometimes stick prominently out of the ground. Extending over a transection of more than 1 km and numbering in the dozens, these complexes of far western Tibet may be associated with royal burials (see D-41, C-121).

Superstructures with parallel courses of slabs stuck in the ground edgewise constitute one of the most common monumental forms in Upper Tibet. They occur with many constructional variations and in many different sizes. Likewise, in Mongolia and Transbaikalia, the slab graves of the Slab Grave culture (circa 16th to 4th century BCE) represent one of the most widely distributed types of archaeological monuments. While cultural exchanges between the steppes and the Tibetan Plateau are clearly indicated, the distinctive morphological characteristics of the slab graves of Upper Tibet demonstrate that they belong to a unique paleocultural tradition. Rather than a singular class of monuments belonging to one group of people, the respective slab grave builders borrowed upon similar technical knowledge applied to the same purpose in environments largely suited to the herding of livestock. The bones of caprids, cattle and horses are found in the ritual slab enclosures of the steppes. Likewise, drokpa’brog pa report finding the bones of these zoological genera in the single-course and double-course enclosures of Upper Tibet. Copper alloy artifacts of the Scytho-Siberian type have been discovered in the slab graves of the steppes. Those steppic grave goods compare closely with Tibetan copper alloy objects known as tokchakthog lcags, the most prominent of which are copper alloy buttons, round mirrors with attachment loops and trihedral arrowheads.

II.2c) Heaped-stone wall enclosures

Enclosures created by incoherent or nondescript heaps of stones have the same geographic ambit as the single-course and double-course walled enclosures. It would appear that they were originally comprised of stones piled together to form sub-rectangular, oval and irregularly-shaped enclosures with open interiors. In some enclosures, stones are still heaped to a height of 1 m or more but most are considerably more leveled. The demarcation between the double-course and heaped-stone wall enclosures is somewhat ambiguous, for these forms of funerary construction have many morphological permutations, which are difficult to categorize in one subtype or the other. In the largest single heaped-stone wall enclosure of the Mönra YarkéMon ra yar rked site, which is known as DzongchenRdzong chen (Great Fortress) (D-24), excavations carried out to retrieve stones for house and corral construction have revealed chambers constructed with large slabs of stone.23 Radiocarbon analysis of human bone samples taken from these chambers have yielded calibrated dates of circa 710 to 790 CE (leg bone fragment), and circa 610-690 CE (tibial plateau). These measured radiocarbon ages correspond with Tibet’s imperial period (629-846 CE). This demonstrates that the largest burial monument at Mönra YarkéMon ra yar rked was used to inter human remains during the period of Tibet’s greatest territorial and political expansion.

II.2d) Rectangular mounds (bangsobang so)

Burial mounds are found throughout Upper Tibet but do not appear to be as common as in other regions of the plateau. These square or rectangular tumuli are elevated on all sides and have inwardly tapering walls. The mounds invariably have flat tops, but the tops now undulate or are concave through the agency of centuries of erosion. I suspect that these mounds contain stone chambers used for interment and mortuary rites, as Tibetan literary accounts indicate. Inner stone chambers may be surrounded by earthen and rubble mantles, which were encased by stabilizing external stone walls crowned with decorative elements. As in Central Tibet, bangsobang so are likely to have been constructed in the northwestern uplands at least until the collapse of the Tibetan empire in the mid 9th century CE. The largest bangsobang so are located in Damzhung’Dam gzhung (see D-99, D-100), a region adjacent to Central Tibet. The large rectangular mounds (maximum size: 34 m by 32 m by 7 m) of Damzhung’Dam gzhung have been heavily plundered and are still in the process of being despoiled for valuables. Large quadrate funerary mounds are also found in the eastern JangtangByang thang (see D-76), western JangtangByang thang (see D-40, D-119, etc.) and at the southeastern margin of GugéGu ge (see C-121).

II.2e) Terraced constructions

The most common funerary monument in the eastern JangtangByang thang (east of the 89th meridian) consists of quadrate funerary structures built into the sides of slopes. Typically, the downhill or forward side of the structure is elevated 50 cm to 2 m above the slope while the uphill side of the structure is flush or just slightly elevated above the slope. These types of funerary structures form rows that are vertically arrayed, giving them the appearance of terraces. They deviate greatly in size and elaboration. The simplest terraced structures are less than 1 m high on the forward side and have external masonry features limited to a few desultory stones or simple single-course walls along the rim, and measure just 2 m to 3 m across. Conversely, the largest specimens measure 12 m by 14 m, and are like bangsobang so in appearance. Large terraced tombs sometimes boast elaborate masonry work in the manner of bangsobang so. In fact, in the eastern JangtangByang thang, the delineation of the mounds and terraced funerary structures is not always clear. Some cemeteries have both kinds of structures, indicating that the mound and terraced forms of burial are closely interrelated. The largest terraced cemeteries have in the neighborhood of 200 tombs each (see D-74, D-75).

There is also a class of terraced structures in RutokRu thog that exhibits different morphological features from its eastern counterpart. These small terraced structures are tightly arranged in a vertical line along a steep slope to produce a stepped effect (see D-66, E-16). From the remaining structural evidence, it would appear that these structures had random-rubble masonry forward and side walls, which were deeply built into the slope. The rear masonry wall, if there is one, is totally engulfed by the slope. The tops of these terraced structures may have been completely covered in stonework. The funerary nature of the stepped structures is corroborated by the local oral traditions. The cultural and chronological relationships between the terraced funerary structures of the eastern and northwestern JangtangByang thang is still unclear.


[23] Bellezza, Antiquities of Upper Tibet, 88-89.

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.