Rediscovering the Settlement System of the 'Dian' Kingdom, in Bronze Age Southern China

By Yao, Alice; Zhilong, Jiang | Antiquity, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Rediscovering the Settlement System of the 'Dian' Kingdom, in Bronze Age Southern China


Yao, Alice, Zhilong, Jiang, Antiquity


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Introduction

During the first millennium BC, regions south of the Yangzi River simultaneously witnessed the onset of sociopolitical complexity. Foremost among these 'indigenous' political formations include the Yelang, Dian, Dongson and Lingnan (Higham 1996; Allard 1998; Lee 2001; Yao 2010), which all shared a sophisticated bronze tradition characterised by the production of large ritual vessels, ornate socketed weapons and agricultural implements. Whether these societies emerged from internally driven processes over the long term or sudden, punctuated events (e.g. migrations and conquests) has been much debated. Recent research in the core of Dongson polity of northern Vietnam suggests important political transformations emerging in the fourth century BC, long before the social impact of Han imperial conquest in 111 BC and as described in Chinese texts (Kim 2010 et al.). These findings are enhanced by discoveries directly north of the Dongson, where Bronze Age polities appeared between the eighth and fifth centuries BC in eastern Yunnan.

It is certain that social inequality and political consolidation predate imperial conquest, and investigations now seek to identify the internal dynamics and timing behind these complex formations. That factional competition, warfare or prestige goods trade (e.g. metal ores and exotic ornaments) stimulated increasing social difference is beyond doubt and highlight the importance of this region. An important corollary is just how complex were these Bronze Age polities, raising the proverbial problem of scale (Wright 1977; Feinman 1998). Opinions differ, with terms such as chiefly society, paramount chiefdom and protostate being variably applied (Tong 1991; Kim et al. 2010). Bronze Age cemeteries in eastern Yunnan imply entrenched social hierarchies with the division of individuals into social ranks and the separation of elite and commoner burial spaces (Lee 2001; Yao 2005). This display of social hierarchy in the mortuary context renders an impression of political and economic control, yet leaves its exact territorial extent largely unanswered.

To adequately address sociopolitical scale requires a corresponding understanding of spatial scale. However, in the absence of detailed settlement patterns, archaeological investigation cannot effectively tackle this issue. This paper presents results from the South Dian Survey, the first full coverage survey in the heartland of 'Dian' polity located in central Yunnan province, PRC (Figure 1). Using a combined programme of surface survey, coring and section cleaning, investigations recovered the remnants of a Bronze Age settlement system associated with the 'Dian' polity and important shifts coincident with Han regional incorporation in 109 BC. These findings reveal the concentration of sites and locations on rich lacustrine wetlands and a settlement hierarchy dominated by the large central mound of Hebosuo that was likely to have marked the political centre of a Bronze Age polity in the Dian basin.

Historical and geographical background

Ancient Chinese texts refer to the Dian kingdom as one of the most powerful entities in south-western China. Han records state that the Dian king could command 30 000 men, and the discovery in 1955 at the cemetery of Shizhaishan of a gold seal bearing the king's title verified the historical existence of the polity. However, before 2008 archaeological investigations had found only two Bronze Age settlements in the Dian basin, while subsequent finds at cemetery sites only contributed to the enigma (Watson 1993; Zhang 2001). If there was indeed a formidable polity, where was its centre? Is it, as archaeologists have long suspected, buried beneath the Han dependency of Yizhou (Figure 1) (Allard 2005)? More important, the spectacular nature of Dian bronze manufacture suggests political control over craft and agricultural production (Murowchick 2002). …

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