Regional Survey and the Development of Complex Societies in Southeastern Shandong, China

By Underhill, Anne P.; Feinman, Gary M. et al. | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Regional Survey and the Development of Complex Societies in Southeastern Shandong, China


Underhill, Anne P., Feinman, Gary M., Nicholas, Linda M., Bennett, Gwen, Fang, Hui, Luan, Fengshi, Yu, Haiguang, Cai, Fengshu, Antiquity


An increasing number of publications debate the nature of sociopolitical organization in the Yellow River valley and neighbouring regions of northern China during the late prehistoric and early historic periods (Dematte 1999; Liu 1996; McIntosh 1999; Trigger 1999). However, several factors hinder an adequate understanding of the development of complex societies in this area. Many studies are synchronic and focus on only one type of settlement, sites surrounded by earthen walls. Most of these sites date to the Longhand period (c. 2600-1900 BC), although earlier sites such as Xishan (late Yangshao period, c. 3000-2600 BC) also have surrounding walls (Yang 1997). Several recent publications conclude that Longhand walled sites represent city-states (Dematte 1999; Shao 1999; Yates 1997; Zhang 1997). Two earlier studies (Liu 1996; Underhill 1994), however, suggest that walled sites were centres of settlement hierarchies in chiefdoms and stress the need to investigate regional variation and change over time in the nature of settlement systems.

Studies that focus on only one kind of site and make generalizations for large areas cannot adequately inform us about the development and nature of early complex societies. For example, archaeologists working in northern China could productively investigate the nature of cooperative and competitive relations between villages and towns within individual settlement systems (Shao 2000: 202; Yan 1999: 144). The development of urbanism is a process, not a single event. There may be important regional variation, as documented in Mesoamerica (Blanton et al. 1993) and the Near East (Falconer & Savage 1995; Redman 1978). Also, the form and degree of integration between urban centres and their surrounding settlements probably shifted over time (Marcus 1998; Redman 1978: 215-16).

Decades of research in several areas of the world such as highland Mexico (Feinman et al. 1985; Feinman & Nicholas 1990; Kowalewski et al. 1989; Sanders et al. 1979) and the Near East (Adams 1981; Wright & Johnson 1975) have illustrated that full-coverage, systematic regional survey is crucial for understanding the kinds of social and economic interactions that occurred between settlements. Full-coverage survey provides a systematic means to understand change in the degree and nature of sociopolitical integration in a given region such as the growth and decline of centres (Billman & Feinman 1999; Fish & Kowalewski 1989; see also Feinman 1998).

Full-coverage, systematic regional surveys do not have a long history in China (cf. Liu 1996). To date, regional surveys have been implemented successfully in three areas of northern China: Shandong province (Cai et al. 1997; Underhill et al. 1998), more than one location in Henan (see Murowchick 1997), and Inner Mongolia (Shelach 1997). The previous publication by our Sino-American team describes the first two seasons of full-coverage survey in southeastern Shandong (Underhill et al. 1998). This report updates that work by synthesizing the results from five seasons, 1995-2000. Our expanded study underscores our previous conclusion that the method of systematic regional survey is indispensable for investigating the development, organization and decline of complex societies.

Relevant publications tend to focus on Henan province, regarded by most scholars as the core area in northern China where the earliest states developed during the Xia (c. 2070-1600 BC, from Erlitou culture remains) and Shang (c. 1600-1046 BC) periods (Qiu & Cai 2001). Our survey reveals development of a clear settlement hierarchy in southeastern Shandong, an area generally regarded as peripheral to important sociopolitical changes that occurred during the Longhand period. We also found changes in settlement systems after this period that are not evident from textual data and appear to differ from the histories of settlement in other areas.

The study region, goals and survey methods

The Trisha area of southeastern Shandong has been recognized as important for understanding the Longhand period ever since initial excavations took place at Liangchengzhen (LCZ) in 1936 (FIGURE 1).

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