An Ancient Wooden Astronomical Calendar Was Just Discovered In A 2,000-Year-Old Chinese Tomb

Published January 4, 2024
Updated March 12, 2024

The calendar is one of more than 600 relics unearthed at the immaculately well-preserved tomb, which dates to the Western Han dynasty.

Ancient Chinese Celestial Calendar

Chongqing Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research InstituteEach wooden strip is marked with a character from the traditional Tiangan Dizhi calendar.

Archaeologists in China have unearthed a set of wooden, rectangular pieces in an immaculately well-preserved 2,000-year-old tomb. Researchers say these pieces are linked to an ancient “astronomical calendar” that hides “celestial secrets.”

In all, researchers uncovered 23 wooden strips, each measuring roughly one inch wide and four inches in length. At the edge of each wooden slip there is also a small circular perforation, which researchers believe indicates the slips were once tied together. That said, it is still largely unclear exactly how this set of wooden slips would have functioned.

The pieces are each inscribed with various Chinese characters related to the Tiangan Dizhi, the “10 Heavenly Stems and 12 Earthly Branches” — an ancient Chinese astronomical calendar system established during the Shang dynasty (1600 B.C.E. to 1045 B.C.E.).

As the name suggests, this calendar system tracked time via a cyclical combination of 10 “Celestial Stems,” each corresponding with the 10 days of the Shang week, and the 12 “Earthly Branches,” representing a cycle of 12 days, ultimately producing a 60-year calendar cycle.

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Based on this cycle, archaeologists believe one of the slips may represent the year the tomb was sealed, while the other 22 slips could specify any other specific year on the calendar.

China News, a government-run news agency, reported that more than 600 relics were unearthed at the same site, and that it is the oldest Western Han dynasty tomb to be definitively dated in China. There were additionally many relics recovered from the subsequent Eastern Han dynasty. These two dynasties together were considered a “golden age” in which many Chinese traditions were first established.

It is also the first time that an entire set of “Stem and Branch” wooden tablets have been discovered in the country, making them the top priority from the excavation.

A full written list of all of the buried items was found alongside them, which also dated the construction of the tomb to 193 B.C.E.

Huang Wei, associate research librarian at the Chongqing Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and the archaeological project leader, added that the wooden tablets found in the tomb could help solve some disputes over ancient naming conventions by linking certain objects to their written names.

For example, there has been some dispute over two different wine-holding vessels and their correct shapes, but comparing records on the wooden tablets may help to clear up some of this confusion.

“The dispatch policy generally records the type and quantity of the burial utensils at the time of burial, which is of great reference value for studying the burial system and customs of the Western Han Dynasty,” Huang Wei said.

Wulong Tomb

Chongqing Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research InstituteAn overhead view of the tomb in China’s Wulong district.

The Tiangan Dizhi calendar is still sometimes used today, mostly in Chinese astrology, but the recently uncovered wooden slips are still rather unusual, as astronomer Ed Krupp, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science.

Pottery Discovered At The Wulong Tomb

Chongqing Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research InstituteAn example of the pottery discovered inside the Wulong tomb.

“The wooden slips with calendric notations are significant as the first and only known example of that kind of inscription on that kind of object,” Krupp said.

Krupp noted that the slips themselves were not a calendar, but rather may have served as points of reference to any one of the 60 years in the calendrical cycle.

“If so, they are not ‘books,’ but objects used to highlight a particular year,” he said.

Krupp added that the various relics uncovered at the site — which also included lacquerware bowls, jars, and plates, as well as bamboo utensils, musical pipes, spears, copper cooking tripods, wooden figurines, and pottery — indicate that a person of high status was buried in the tomb.

“The artifacts interred with the deceased are numerous and very, very fine,” he said. “This is rich, expensive material.”

After reading about the discovery of this ancient Chinese celestial calendar, learn about the stunningly preserved Western Han mummy Xin Zhui, a.k.a. Lady Dai. Then, discover the story of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Harvey, Austin. "An Ancient Wooden Astronomical Calendar Was Just Discovered In A 2,000-Year-Old Chinese Tomb.", January 4, 2024, Accessed June 15, 2024.