Recent Archaeometric Research on 'The Origins of Chinese Civilisation'

By Jing, Yuan; Campbell, Rod | Antiquity, March 2009 | Go to article overview
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Recent Archaeometric Research on 'The Origins of Chinese Civilisation'

Jing, Yuan, Campbell, Rod, Antiquity


The origin of Chinese civilisation is an old and fraught question both in China and the West. What, for instance, does 'Chinese' mean in the context of Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age China? Should we speak of Chinese civilisation or Chinese civilisations? Did it or they have a single or multiple origins? What exactly do we mean by 'civilisation' anyway? Nevertheless, and despite the long history of these questions and the fact that they themselves have become more complicated over time, significant progress has been made in at least some areas. It is now uncontroversial, for instance, to state that Chinese civilisation had many sources, even if by the former we restrict ourselves to the Yellow River Valley polities privileged by traditional historiography.

Major discoveries in the last 30 years, both within and beyond the Central Plains have transformed our understanding of regional development and interaction. There have been qualitative developments in Chinese archaeology as well, such as the increasing use of interdisciplinary specialist collaboration, notably involving archaeological applications of natural science techniques. Nevertheless, the task of unravelling the prehistory of an area as large and diverse as China is Herculean and there are many serious lacunae in our understanding of even the more intensively studied regions. Thus, while there has been much progress in researching culture-history, chronology, urban sites and elite material culture, much less is known about the technological and economic aspects of civilisation and its antecedents in China. To address these concerns and to foster the development of inter-disciplinary archaeometric approaches in China, collaborative scientific research into the economy and technology of several key Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age sites in the Central Plains was undertaken under the auspices of the Chinese government-funded Origins of Chinese Civilization Project.


The Origins of Chinese Civilization Project

Announced in 2001 following the completion of the Three Dynasties Chronology Project, the Origins of Chinese Civilization Project is in some ways an extension of the former, overlapping in its chronological (2500-1500 BC) and geographic focus. Moreover, while the Three Dynasties Chronology Project was aimed at giving the traditional historiographic narrative a firmer chronological basis, the first stage of the Origins of Chinese Civilization Project focused on the origins and development of what could be termed Central Plains civilisation in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (the Longshan, Erlitou and Erligang periods). Future phases of research, however, will extend beyond the Central Plains and expand in chronological range, making this a much more expansive and inclusive project.

The sites focused on in this first stage of research, Taosi, Wangchenggang, Xinzhai and Erlitou, were selected because of their precocious development, ancestral relationship to later developments in the Central Plains and their location within the area traditionally associated with Chinas first dynasty: the Xia (Figure 1). The Taosi site (c. 2500-1900 BC) located in southern Shanxi province, is important for its size (300ha), elite burials, massive wall, evidence of early bronze-casting and what is apparently a monumental observatory (Shanxi Team 2005). Wangchenggang (c. 2200-2000 BC), for its part, is significant for its possible identification with Yangcheng, a capital of Yu, the legendary founder of the Xia dynasty. With a second rammed earth wall discovered in 2002 enclosing 30ha (Peking University & Henan Institute 2006), Wangchenggang is the largest walled Longshan site in Henan province. Sacrificial remains and elite ceramics and jades discovered there are also suggestive of the possible significance of the site and its relationship to Erlitou elite practices. Xinzhai culture (c.

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