Pottery Production and Social Complexity in Bronze Age Sichuan


A Review of Pottery Production and Social Complexity of the Bronze Age Cultures on the Chengdu Plain, Sichuan, China, by Kuei-chen Lin.

In this dissertation, Kuei-chen Lin examines the organization of pottery production and social complexity on the Chengdu Plain in Sichuan Province, China, during the early and middle Bronze Age (ca. 1800–800 BC). Specifically, Lin uses multiple forms of analysis—including metric measurements, mineralogical information, and chemical composition—to investigate how the organization of pottery production compares between three ancient site clusters at Sanxingdui, Shi’erqiao, and Jinsha. Lin’s approach is multiscalar and takes into consideration production at the household level, site level, community level, and regional level, providing insight into how local practices are linked to larger, regional traditions. In addition, Lin delineates what is plausible in terms of technological choice and cultural practices given the constraints and opportunities of the natural environments in which these site clusters are situated.

Chapter 1, the introduction, situates Lin’s project in the broader field of study of the ancient Chengdu Plain. In this chapter, she provides historical background on the development of societies and pottery production in the area, from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. In particular, the author begins to discuss the emergence of specialization and how it might be related to social complexity and challenges the commonly held idea that centralized political power is necessary for the management of craft production and other specialized activities. Instead, she proposes that small-scale production can be far reaching both geographically and contextually. To guide her investigations, Lin presents several interrelated research questions: (1) “How do material distinctions reflect social distinctions and how do changes in pottery production reflect social changes?” (p. 5); (2) “How are technological choices revealed or restricted in the processes of pottery manufacturing?” (pp. 5-6); (3) “What economic mode might have been responsible for these patterns of pottery production and this sociospatial organization?” (pp. 6-7); (4) “What were the processes by which domestic economies grew, promoting cross-regional exchange? Further, how did various spheres of exchange interact, providing opportunities for negotiating the meaning of social things?” (p. 7). Lin goes on to outline her hypotheses and methodology, specifically as related to craft production, cultural control, and social complexity; domestic economies; and the changing social meaning of artifacts.

In Chapter 2, Lin reviews theories and case studies relevant to her research. Importantly, she addresses the concept of craft production and how it relates to economic and social processes. As is necessary, this chapter summarizes many of the “classics” on craft specialization and social complexity (e.g., Brumfiel and Earle 1987; Costin 1991; Rice 1981) and developing “classics” (e.g., Flad 2011; Miller 2007). Two of the key concepts Lin hits upon in this chapter are standardization and chaîne opératoire. Of particular relevance to her study are the ideas that standardization can have various sources (p. 27) and that it can result from any number of steps in the chaîne opératoire (p. 34), ranging from raw material selection to consumer preference. In this chapter, Lin also provides a good sampling of case studies from the literature, including Miriam Stark’s work in the Philippines in which she demonstrates that craft specialization is present in non-state and tribal societies and does not require centralized control (Stark 1991); Heather Miller’s investigations in the Indus Valley that show how crafters might increase perceived efficiency by working multiple materials using similar technologies in a single location (Miller 2007); and Gary Feinman and Linda Nicholas’ work in Mesoamerica on the impact of household production, which can be high-intensity, highly productive, and complex, on domestic economies (Feinman and Nicholas 2000).

Chapter 3 provides information on the geology and ecology of the Chengdu Plain, important for understanding the restrictions and opportunities imposed by the natural environment. Lin notes the complex and diverse geology of the region (pp. 74-75). She then describes the archaeological cultures that inhabited the Plain throughout prehistory and the three main site clusters (Sanxingdui, Shi’erquiao, and Jinsha) that serve as the basis of her analyses. These ancient societies include two that date prior to the Shi’erqiao Culture (1250–600 BC)—the Baodun Culture (ca. 2700–1700 BC) and Sanxingdui Culture (1700–1150 BC); the Shi’erqiao site cluster, including the Shi’erqiao type site and 11 others; the Jinsha site cluster; peripheral sites northwest of Chengdu City; and other relevant archaeological sites and finds from Chongqing-Three Gorges area, sites east of the Three Gorges area, and Shaanxi Province. One of the main goals of providing such information is to identify similarities and differences in cultural practices (p. 202). Together, this natural and cultural information helps us better understand the effect of the natural environment and cultural practices and traditions on the organization of ceramic production and its relationship to social complexity. This section contains excellent maps and illustrations.

Chapter 4 is essentially the methods chapter in which Lin undertakes a detailed analysis of pottery production in the Chengdu Plain during the early to middle Bronze Age. In this chapter, the author describes the vessel types used in the various analyses, primarily pointed-bottom vessels [jiandi zhan (saucers), predominantly, but also jiandi bei (cups) and jiandi guan (jars)]. The main reason pointed-bottom vessels were chosen is because they are a shared aspect of material culture found in the Sanxingdui, Shi’erqiao, and Jinsha site clusters and are found in multiple cultural contexts.  As such, they have the potential to help “explore the uncertain relations among these settlements, whether they were successive political centers or actually featured different social divisions” (p. 223). Lin’s investigations included three stages of analysis: (1) identification of “representative and curious samples”; (2) assessment of the degree of standardization of vessel types to indentify different production groups; and (3) physical and chemical analysis (p. 237). The author then reports on the specific types of analyses performed and the results. First, following guidelines laid out by Cathy Costin and Melissa Hagstrum (1995), physical features of pottery samples were identified using visual examination and metric measurements in order to assess the degree of standardization and variation and similarities in pottery within and between locales, sites, and site clusters and over time. Lin looked at manufacturing techniques (e.g., throwing and coiling), clay and tempering, color, dimensions (mainly rim radius and vessel height), and performance characteristics. Next, thin sections were made using 253 pottery samples and mineralogical analysis—X-ray powder diffraction analysis (XRD) (N = 42) and petrographic analysis (N = 50)—was performed on a selection of these in order to extract information about clay materials, temper, forming methods, and firing. Then, chemical analysis was undertaken on 68 samples using X-ray fluorescence (XRF). This was done in an attempt to identify distinctive chemical compositions that might reflect cultural preferences and potters’ habits and traditions (and aid in the identification and working groups) (p. 315). Finally, thermal analysis was used to determine the temperatures to which 47 samples were fired and firing conditions. These, in turn, can indicate potters’ behaviors and pottery function (pp. 335-336). By doing all of this, Lin’s goal was to discern various and overlapping patterns that could be used for classifying pottery and for cross-checking various classifications.

In Chapter 5, Lin synthesizes the analytical results and hypotheses proposed earlier in the dissertation, essentially (and successfully) linking theory and method. She outlines a number of her major findings (pp. 354-355): (1) pottery production and the procurement of raw materials does not appear to have been centrally controlled; (2) dispersed and small production groups maintained general ideas regarding vessel types; (3) potters tended to use local resources to make morphologically similar pieces; (4) there is variation in the degree of standardization within a single vessel form (jiandi zhan) between sites, suggesting different controls or needs; (5) although the contexts in which certain vessel forms are found vary, their overall dimensions tend to remain consistent; (6) changes in pottery do not appear to be correlated with social change; and (7) technological change and innovation is likely “selective and strategic.” In addition, Lin discusses how production environments (e.g., ecology, location of production in relation to other crafting activities, proximity of crafters to one another) may have influenced technological choices, the relationship between standardization and how it becomes tradition, and the challenges of discovering an emic classification of pottery.

Chapter 6 is the conclusion of Lin’s dissertation. In it, she summarizes her research and describes some of the implications of her work. Lin reminds the reader that pottery production is influenced by both the natural environment (i.e., available resources) and cultural traditions and preferences (p. 391). Based on her findings, Lin proposes that “the working groups responsible for the pottery assemblage characteristic of the Chengdu Plain were loosely organized at co-residential households or at the community level with little or no elite or political intervention” (p. 392). Furthermore, multiple modes of production can coexist, even in the production of similar products (p. 392). Lin stresses that conformity (or standardization) is not necessarily the result of centralized power (p. 398)—alternative explanations need to be considered.

In addition to providing an excellent review of the literature related to craft production and specialization, standardization, political complexity, and power, Lin’s work presents a very well-conceived project by which she examines the relationships between various aspects of pottery standardization, scale, and political control. Her research challenges the idea that craft production in the Chengdu Plain during the Bronze Age was under the control of centralized leadership (p. 389). Throughout, she is cognizant of the fuzziness of borders and classifications [e.g., “fine” vs. “coarse” as a way to categorize pottery is not always effective; instead, we need to know why potters may have chosen particular materials (p. 234)]. Her work demonstrates that appearances can be deceiving and that it is important to undertake in-depth analyses to really understand a material and its associated cultural practices (p. 236). By doing so, we can hope to (almost) access emic categories of our ancient subjects: “. . . the material categories we may discover are only one of the many ways to represent a given cultural world, or they are simply an instantiation of a template. From this viewpoint, no material expression of a category is a pure, holistic reflection of a cultural template. Instead, we may hope at best to search for material categories, which were social products of a particular space and time, to infer the embodied social distinctions that might not be directly accessible otherwise” (p. 365).

Lisa C. Niziolek
Integrative Research Center
The Field Museum

Brumfiel, Elizabeth M. and Timothy K. Earle. 1987. “Specialization, Exchange, and Social Complexity: Introduction,” in Specialization, Exchange, and Social Complexity, edited by E. Brumfiel and T. Earle, pp. 1-9. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Costin, Cathy Lynne. 1991. “Craft Specialization: Issues in Defining, Documenting, and Explaining the Organization of Production.” Archaeological Method and Theory 3:1-56.
Costin, Cathy L. and Melissa B. Hagstrum. 1995. “Standardization, Labor Investment, Skill, and the Organization of Ceramic Production in Late Prehispanic Highland Peru.” American Antiquity 60(4):619-639.
Feinman, Gary M. and Linda M. Nicholas. 2000. “High-intensity Household-scale Production in Ancient Mesoamerica: A Perspective from Ejutla, Oaxaca,” in Cultural Evolution: Contemporary Viewpoints, edited by G. Feinman and L. Manzanilla, pp. 119-142. New York, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Flad, Rowan K. 2011. Salt Production and Social Hierarchy in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Miller, Heather M.-L. 2007. “Associations and Ideologies in the Locations of Urban Craft Production at Harappa, Pakistan (Indus Civilization),” in Rethinking Craft Specialization in Complex Societies, edited by Z. Hruby and R. Flad, pp. 37-51. Wiley-Blackwell.
Rice, Prudence M. 1981. “Evolution of Specialized Pottery Production.” Current Anthropology 22(3):219-240.
Stark, Miriam T. 1991. “Ceramic Production and Community Specialization: A Kalinga Ethnoarchaeological Study.” World Archaeology 23(1):64-78.

Primary Sources
Excavated archaeological material (mainly pottery) from site clusters at Sanxingdui, Shi’erquiao, and Jinsha
Archaeological site reports, mainly from the Chengdu Plain
Geological information from geological reports and maps of the Sichuan Basin
Data derived from physical, mineralogical, and chemical analyses of pottery samples

Dissertation Information
University of California, Los Angeles. 2013. 567 pp. Primary advisors: Lothar von Falkenhausen and Dwight Read.

Image: Excavation at Jinsha Site, Chengdu, Sichuan; photo by author.

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