New View of Neolithic Culture in Northwest China


A review of Pottery Production, Mortuary Practice, and Social Complexity in the Majiayao Culture, NW China (ca. 5300–4000 BP), by Ling-yu Hung.

Ling-yu Hung’s dissertation focusing on the pottery of the late Neolithic Majiayao Culture of northwest China provides fresh insights into the complexity and variation of this culture by utilizing new methods of ceramic analysis paired with theories of craft production, distribution, and consumption. While the aesthetic appeal of their decoration makes the Majiayao-type painted ceramics some of the most well-known among Chinese Neolithic ceramics, up to this point the main research focus in Chinese literature has been on stylistic and typological comparisons that are used to discuss chronology and regional cultural variation; publications discussing their production or wider social implications, on the other hand, are quite rare. Here Hung breaks out of the mold of traditional Chinese archaeology by combining chemical compositional analysis, settlement studies, and mortuary research, to provide new insights into the relations between shifting settlement patterns, mortuary practices, painted ceramic vessel production and distribution, and social competition throughout the Majiayao period.

In an introductory chapter 1, Hung provides background information on the Majiayao culture and on the limited research that has been performed on it so far. She also outlines her theoretical approach, which draws heavily from the work of Anne Underhill in the coastal province of Shandong as well as other scholars in the field of archaeological craft production studies. The chapter then turns to address Hung’s specific research questions and objectives, outlining the current limits to our knowledge of Majiayao craft production and exchange systems. The author furthermore explains her general approach of using archaeological evidence to better understand “1) how ceramic production, distribution, and consumption during the Majiayao Culture period changed over time; 2) how mortuary practices and regional subsistence intensification interacted with these changes; and 3) how specialized pottery production was incorporated into the development of social hierarchy among the Majiayao Culture period communities” (p. 9).

The following sections of chapter 1 focus on setting the scene by providing background information on the current and past environment and geography of the study area which spans Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces, as well as a short history of archaeological investigations into the Majiayao culture and its three subphases, namely Majiayao, Banshan, and Machang. In the next step, the author undertakes a detailed review of research covering Majiayao pottery production. Furthermore, she discusses works on the connection between social organization and pottery production and consumption. These include Zhang Chi’s (1994) study that points toward the relationship between consumption and kin groups as reflected in the material of the Banshan phase of the Majiayao culture. While it becomes apparent from this literature review that questions of social dimensions of ceramic production and consumption have been discussed in the Chinese literature, it is clear that the conclusions reached so far are tentitive at best, thus leaving a perfect opening for Hung’s analysis.

The last section of the introduction covers Hung’s data sets and research methodology. The material she covers includes: 1) survey data drawn from Chinese publications on sites in the region, which serves to understand site distribution; 2) excavated material, in the form of site reports primarily from cemetery sites; 3) first-hand data collected by the author, including collections of ceramics housed in museums and archaeological institutes in the study region; and 4) the results of physiochemical analyses on ceramics conducted by the author. Hung discusses the limitations of each data type, for example the fact that most excavated data is from mortuary contexts or that survey data was not systematically collected, thus providing a clear view of the available research materials. While specific research methodologies for each data set are not laid out here, they become clear in the following three chapters, which focus on the Majiayao, Banshan, and Machang subphases respectively.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of our current knowledge on the Majiayao phase, i.e., the first phase of the Majiayao culture, and then introduces Hung’s investigations into the pottery associated with this phase. After reviewing the four subdivisions of the Majiayao subphase as laid out in the Chinese literature, Hung investigates the geographic distribution of the different types of pottery. The results allows her to infer that the Majiayao populations expanded during the first three sub-phases of the Majiayao phase before contracting in the final one. Hung draws correlation tables between site expansion and pottery use at Linija in central Gansu to show that site size increased during the first three Majiayao subphases. She furthermore creates graphs and maps of site-size distributions for known Majiayao sites in Gansu and Qinghai, infering that sites fall into four groups based on size categories. While the distribution of these categories varies by region, it seems that largest cluster of the largest sites is located between the Tao and Wei Rivers in eastern Gansu. Hung therefore infers that this area is the core of sociopolitical or economic organization during the Majiayao phase.

After discussing the Majiayao settlement of Linjia, Hung turns towards the Majiayao-type painted pottery, which despite its wide distribution is rather homogenous in form and decorative style throughout the region, thus suggesting significant interregional interaction. Using a combination of literature, analysis of primary material, and ethnoarchaeological research in Northwest China, Hung describes in minute detail the processes that were likely involved in making a Majiayao vessel as well as the variations that occur throughout the various subphases. She concludes that the artists who produced these vessels must have spent significant time on each item and had to be highly trained to ensure that their vessels were acceptable for Majiayao consumers. Additionally, there seems to be a decline in both quality and quantity of ceramic production during the last Majiayao subphase. Overall, there is striking continuity in both form and design throughout the period and throughout the many different regions occupied by Majiayao peoples. One difference pointed out by the author is that regions outside of central Gansu and the Huangshui River valley in Qinghai have lower percentages of painted ceramics, which Hung associates with possible regional differences in cultural developments.

These regional differences are further explored in the next section of chapter 2 which is dedicated to physiochemical evidence for pottery exchange. The results of the LA-ICP-AES analysis of 170 samples from central and southern Gansu as well as northwest Sichuan cannot pinpoint the origin of the clay used to produce Majiayao painted pottery; however, they show that the painted pottery in northwest Sichuan was made from clays only available in the Gansu-Qinghai regions, thus implying long distance exchange. Unpainted ceramics from Sichuan were all made from a different kind of clay.

The final section of this chapter focuses on burial practices of the Majiayao culture. In the literature review, the author points out that it is generally agreed that burial practices, and specifically burial positions, are related to different cultural groups inhabiting this region. Hung holds that while all groups gave painted pottery to their deceased, immigrant groups offered more vessels than indigenous groups.

In the conclusion, the main arguments of this chapter are summarized, concluding that during subphase 2 and 3 of the Majiayao phase there was a general expansion, both of population and economy, followed by a contraction in the final phase, developments that might have been related to climate change. As far as regional variation is concerned, the author remarks that “the current data show no correlation between hierarchical settlement pattern and intense regional painted pottery production in the MJYP” (p. 61).

Chapters 3 and 4 follow a layout similar to that of Chapter 2, but focus on the Banshan and Machang subphases respectively. Much of the same methodology is used for investigating questions of chronology, site distribution, and changes in vessel form and decoration over time and space. When discussing regional exchange of Banshan pottery, however, Hung bases her conclusions largely on stylistic differences and petrographic analyses, and less on physiochemical composition, largely because the results of the latter kind of analysis did not show any difference in the material from different regions.

In chapter 3, the author argues based on settlement data that there was a population decrease between the Majiayao and Banshan phases, while regional diversity of the ceramic assemblages increased during the Banshan phase. Size and number of painted vessels in graves also decreased, and in peripheral areas quality decreased as well, especially during the early Banshan phase. Furthermore, by the middle period the quantity of ceramics produced at larger settlements in the central regions increased. Based on the difference in burial posture between the different regions, which she sees as a sign of a lack of migration, Hung also argues that pottery was exported from this central region to the periphery. Furthermore, she holds that high-quality ceramics could not have been produced locally in these outlying areas. On the other hand, Hung argues that other shared burial practices indicate significant regional interaction, but not actual migration.

In chapter 4, which concentrates on the Machang phase, the author discusses a significant regional diversity in painted ceramics, settlement patterns, and mortuary practices. She is able to show that during this phase the previously peripheral Huangshui River Valley in Qinghai became a main center of site distribution during the Machang Phase. This may have been due to migration from Central Gansu, since burial positions typical for the groups from Central Gansu now appear in the Huangshui River Valley. Hung furthermore argues that agriculture spread at the same time. Additionally, increased demand for mortuary ceramics was met by increased production paired with a reduction in vessel quality. Interestingly, painted designs were still not entirely mass produced, but all vessels had unique designs. Hung’s physiochemical analysis on Machang vessels suggests that increased demand for vessels was also met by increased exchange of painted vessels. Vessels were primarily exported from regions with a denser settlement covers to less populated areas.

Overall, chapters 2, 3, and 4 thus provide an overview of all three Majiayao phases by evaluating previous research and presenting new results including settlement-size studies and physiochemical, petrographic, and stylistic analysis of painted ceramics. Based on this material, Hung argues that the Majiayao period witnessed significant changes in population numbers, settlement patterns, exchange patterns, and social relations; she therefore is able to show that the painted ceramics provide an excellent window on past developments of the Majiayao culture.

In the concluding chapter 5, Hung provides a comprehensive overview of her results. As a first step, she traces the connection between settlement pattern shifts and painted ceramic production and their changes over time, concluding that painted pottery production remained most intense around core settlement areas throughout all phases. Secondly, Hung describes three regional groups that inhabited the research area during the Majiayao phase, identifying them through differences in burial postures. In some cases these groups are associated with specific burial pottery.

Based on these results, Hung suggests a new model for the production and distribution of painted pottery that treats painted pottery vessels as commodities. Hung argues that these commodities were produced in kin-based groups, but that the distribution and exchange may have taken place in a variety of economic situations. As vessels from diverse origins were found in single tombs, indicating exchange with multiple production groups, Hung argues for inter-kin group exchange. Additionally, some groups seem to have had a wider range than others. The author furthermore holds that the number of painted ceramics produced in the core settlement regions was higher than in the periphery, simply because the core area had a higher agricultural output, allowing for a greater division of labor and the specialization of part of the population on ceramic production.

In the final section of her dissertation, Hung returns briefly to models suggested by Anne Underhill cited at the beginning of the dissertation and discusses them in relation to the increase in quantity and decrease in quality of painted pottery vessels during the Majiayao period, combined with the increased heterogeneity in ceramic production over time. According to Hung, this increase in heterogeneity is the result of an increase in demand, but not in variety of vessels, as Underhill identified it for the Dawenkou Culture, but for a larger number. Hung argues that the increase in vessel numbers in some graves shows an increase in social inequality, with “elites” having more vessels and thus more provisions for the deceased. “Wealthier” graves also seem to have had a greater number of vessels from other regions, showing that, Hung argues, foreign objects might have been more highly valued. She sees all of these factors as manifestations of increasing social competition during the later phase.

Pottery Production, Mortuary Practice, and Social Complexity in the Majiayao Culture, NW China (ca. 5300–4000 BP) brings together a wide variety of published Chinese data on the Majiayao culture and combines it with original research on settlement patterns and ceramic production and distribution to achieve new insights into this long-known but understudied culture. While many questions about the precise nature of craft production and social organization remain unanswered, this work lays the foundation for future research on the Majiayao.

Andrew Womack
Department of Anthropology
Yale University

Dissertation Information

Washington University in St. Louis. 2011. 387 pp. Primary Advisor: T.R. Kidder.

Image: Painted storage jar dated to the Machang phase of the Majiayao Culture, unearthed from the Liuwan cemetery in Qinghai Province. Photograph by Author.

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