Academic journal article Antiquity

Taiwan's Early Metal Age and Southeast Asian Trading Systems

Academic journal article Antiquity

Taiwan's Early Metal Age and Southeast Asian Trading Systems

Article excerpt


Chinese historical documents show that since 111 BC, the Western Han Emperor Wu Di established maritime trade routes from southern China through Southeast Asia to India (Ban 2011 [AD 82]). During this same period, Indian traders were travelling around or across the Indian Ocean to reach as far as Bali (Ardika & Bellwood 1991; Calo et al. 2015). Imported goods, including glass (beads, ear pendants, rings and vessels), garnet, amber, rock crystal, beryl, agate, etched carnelian beads, gold polyhedral beads, pearls and other exotic objects, such as a Persian glazed ceramic pot and a bronze cymbal, both from the Parthian Empire, have been found at Hepu, in Guangxi in southern China (Xiong 2014), one of the most important ports of the Maritime Silk Roads at that time.

While written documents attest to the involvement of Han and Indian traders in the inter-regional maritime networks of 2000 years ago, the archaeological record of Taiwan presents different types of trade goods that carry new implications for the complexity of movement in the ancient South China Sea (Hung et al. 2013; Bellina 2014). The Formosan (Austronesian-speaking) people of Taiwan had no script, and the island was not mentioned in any detail in Chinese and European historical documents until the seventeenth century. Separated from the influence of potent kingdoms or empires, Taiwan's prehistory offers a unique perspective on how the world's early globalised economies affected a peripheral location, particularly at the beginning of Taiwan's Metal Age.

It has been presumed, because of Taiwan's location, that the earliest metalworking technologies were introduced either from the Dong Son culture of northern Vietnam (Kano 1955), or directly across the Taiwan Strait from Mainland China to the north (Ling 1962; Liu 1963; Chang 1969: 219). New discoveries in south-eastern Taiwan suggest, however, that the earliest metallurgical activity, along with a set of novel body ornaments, was introduced from the southern region of Mainland Southeast Asia. In this article, we review the current evidence from Jiuxianglan and other sites relating to the origins of the Taiwan Metal Age.

Contextual background to metal goods and working in Taiwan

Although occasional metal fragments have been recorded at a few Taiwan Late Neolithic sites (from the mid second to late first millennia BC), they are regarded as the result of limited contacts with the Asian mainland (Chen 2011). This is because the Bronze Age of China commenced by 1900 BC (Liu & Chen 2012), and in Thailand and Vietnam between 1100 and 1000 BC (Higham et al. 2015), at least more than 500 years before the recognised Metal Age began in Taiwan. Diagnostic features of the latter include the contemporaneous appearance of artefacts made of bronze, iron, gold, silver and glass. Furthermore, the presence of in situ metallurgical activity (see below) implies the transference of techniques. The simultaneous appearance of these various materials and techniques indicates that Taiwan did not undergo separate Bronze and Iron Ages, unlike South China and Vietnam.

Previous studies have proposed that the Metal Age began on the north-western coast of Taiwan around AD 200-500, followed by an initial spread down the west coast of the island, and eventually across to the east coast (Liu 2002: 112). Numerous excavated items from Shisanhang near Taipei, in northern coastal Taiwan, are recognised as trade goods from the Chinese Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Since 2003, however, new excavations in southeastern Taiwan have provided more than 10 radiocarbon dates that are much earlier than Shisanhang and associated with quite different assemblages; for instance, as documented at sites of Sanhe, Beinan (the upper layer of this site) and Jiuxianglan (Figure 1).

These new dates suggest that the beginning of the Taiwan Metal Age occurred as early as 400 BC along the south-eastern coast (Table 1, Lee 2002: 67; Liu et al. …

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