The Social Context of Early Pottery in the Lingnan Region of South China

By Pearson, Richard | Antiquity, December 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Social Context of Early Pottery in the Lingnan Region of South China

Pearson, Richard, Antiquity


In the past few years archaeologists have confirmed that people in East Asia began to experiment with sedentary living, pottery making and plant and animal domestication as early as 14000 years ago, and very definitely by 12000 years ago. It appears that a number of early sites in China, Japan and the Russian Maritime province show evidence of a settled existence (sedentism), principally pottery, and pose many questions about their social, economic, and environmental contexts. Generally, pottery appears to have been invented in crude form about 15 000 years ago, during the end of the Palaeolithic. Keally et al. (2004: 349) conclude that 'the earliest pottery in East Asia and the whole OM Worm is now reliably dated to about 13 700-13300 b.p. (about 17200-14700 BP) in 3 regions: (1) Japan, (2) lower and middle parts of the Amur River Basin in the Russian Far East and (3) southern China'. At the end of this formative period, around 9000 years ago, it became more sophisticated and widespread (Cao in press).

What was the impetus for the invention of pottery? In this paper I summarise very briefly the information on early pottery sites of the Lingnan region (Guangdong and Guangxi provinces), and introduce the concept of prestige technologies as a possible explanation for the emergence of pottery making and domestication. Building on the substantial contributions of Brian Hayden (1995, 1998) and Prudence Rice (1999), I connect this explanation to changing trends in the use of agency theory by archaeologists (Robb 1999; Dobres & Robb 2000).

Social origins of pottery making

Brian Hayden has proposed that 'aggrandizing individuals seeking to promote their self-interest have been responsible for the development of prestige technologies including the use of metals, pottery and domesticated foods' (1998: 18). These 'aggrandisers' depended on favourable surplus economic conditions, and their prestige technology could be transformed to practical technology. In 1995 Hayden stated that since there is no record of pottery making before the development of complex hunter-gatherer and horticultural communities 'it is tempting to view the initial development of pottery as prestige technology' (1995: 260). He proposed that the ceramics were used as food containers for competitive display and consumption, but at the same time, he left open the possibility that aggrandisers might use other media for prestige food containers. If pottery were part of a prestige technology, Hayden postulated that it should initially occur as serving or feasting utensils--plates, bowls, liquid containers, or vessels for the preparation of prestige foods, which might involve boiling, brewing or straining. Finally he predicted that in such cases there would be a rapid development to specialised production of elaborately decorated forms involving large expenditures of labour (1995: 261).

Prudence Rice (1999) adopted the general theoretical position of Hayden, identifying unfired and low-fired clay to be part of early prestige technologies. She found the 'aggrandiser' theory approach of Hayden to be heuristic because it combined earlier culinary and symbolic explanations with more robust (fewer post hoc adaptationalist) implications for the origins and wider adoption of pottery. The culinary hypotheses were based on the idea of the discovery that sun-baked or fired clay for lining baskets or fireplaces could be used for rigid, relatively impermeable containers while the symbolic explanations focused on the early appearance of objects other than vessels, such as figurines, ornaments, beads, and spindle whorls. Rice found that the earliest pottery sites lack evidence for year-round sedentism and housing, and often seem to be based on a settlement subsistence system featuring semi-sedentary foraging and collecting, with seasonal movements from riparian to interior camp sites (1999: 21). She concluded that from the viewpoint of feasting and social models, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of pottery containers for short-term 'accumulation' rather than long-term storage.

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