Social Change in Mumun Pottery Period Korea


A review of Storage Practices, Intensive Agriculture, and Social Change in Mumun Pottery Period Korea, 2903-2450 Calibrated Years B.P., by Martin T. Bale.

When social inequality develops in a society that was formerly egalitarian, this marks a significant development in its history – it signals the presence of elites who may control or manipulate the production and distribution of key resources. Martin T. Bale’s Storage Practices, Intensive Agriculture, and Social Change in Mumun Pottery Period Korea examines one such way elites may have influenced Mumun society. He investigates storage in detail, an important unit of analysis for anthropological archaeologists since the size and nature of storage can offer insights into ancient economic practices. Bale’s inquiry, however, extends deeper into the broader implications of storage and social change during the Mumun Period (1780-350 cal. B.C.), a time that would be foundational for the first Korean states 200 years later. Specifically, he seeks to ascertain whether agricultural surplus “was transformed from being ‘basic resources’ that the whole community could access into ‘prestige resources’ that were controlled by a small number of actors” (p. 3).

Chapter 1 situates the dissertation within its theoretical framework. Bale draws upon theories of agency and social evolution, maintaining that the transition from an egalitarian to a more complex sociopolitical organization necessitates individual agents or actors who facilitate the promotion of their status from non-elite to elite. Aggrandizing actors are needed to cause change because egalitarian societies, by nature, have mechanisms in place that favor group cohesion and interests. Through the manipulation or control of relationships, resources, and labor, these would-be leaders are able to break down the leveling mechanisms and contribute to the evolution of an egalitarian society to a transegalitarian society, which occurred during the Mumun Period. The dissertation focuses on one such strategy pertinent to early agricultural societies in which incipient elites maintain their status by controlling production and surplus, the latter recoverable archaeologically through storage remains.

After a discussion of Mumun chronology in Chapter 2, Chapters 3, 4, and 5 provide the backdrop against which storage patterns are analyzed for the three areas under consideration: West-central, South-central, and Southeast Korea. In Chapter 3, Bale summarizes the subsistence pattern of the Mumun Period, which is intricately tied to the way in which ancient people stored surplus. He presents original research that he conducted on archaeobotanical samples as well as data from other studies, and describes Mumun subsistence as shifting from a mix of hunting, fishing, and agriculture, to an economy that relied increasingly on agriculture by the Middle Mumun Period (850-540 cal. B.C.), which occurred concurrently with the rise of inequality. However, Bale argues that based on the evidence of relict fields, the practice of agriculture was not organized or managed by elites but was embedded at the household level. Chapters 4 and 5 continue with the background of the Mumun Period, with analyses and in-depth literature reviews of the various areas in which storage intersects with Mumun culture, namely households, settlements, social organization, economy, mortuary practices, ceremony, and ideation. Bale paints a picture of an overall trend towards greater complexity, especially in West-central and Southeast Korea, but with significant variation at a finer scale among the three regions.

In Chapters 6 and 7, Bale delves into the analysis of storage itself. Chapter 6 focuses on storage in the form of pit features found in the interior and exterior of pithouses, which once would have held jars containing grains. Using qualitative and statistical measures, Bale finds that interior pits declined over time and were largely replaced by exterior pits by the Middle Mumun Period. His analysis also shows that contrary to what he expected, there is no strong correlation between storage and elite residences for interior pits, while some exterior pits, especially in South-central Korea, were tied to elite areas. In Chapter 7, Bale examines storage in the forms of large-capacity vessels and raised-floor structures. Based on his analysis, he finds large-capacity vessels to be predominantly located at large settlements and in some places, near elite residences. Results for raised-floor structures are not as conclusive, however, due to the nature of preservation and lack of reliable data, but evidence seems to suggest that some of these structures may have been associated with elite areas. Bale ties in the different lines of evidence in his final chapter, Chapter 8, with a contextualized discussion of storage and social change in East Asia and beyond. He concludes that “despite a number of social and technological changes such as the advent of a number of indices of intensive agriculture, the appearance of comparatively large central-place settlements, and the emergence of incipient elite actors, storage practices of the period of study remained at the household-level with perhaps a few notable exceptions…” (p. 230).

This dissertation is an important contribution for several reasons. First, syntheses of prehistoric Korean data in English are still rare and thus vastly underrepresented in anthropology. Bale’s study of Mumun Period storage adds to what is hopefully a growing body of work, and joins the work of other scholars studying early Korea (e.g. Rhee and Choi 1992; Nelson 1993; Kim S.O. 1996; Barnes 2001; Lee 2003; Kim B.C. 2005). Second, Bale’s dissertation provides readers with an introduction to more than just Mumun storage but to the rest of Mumun culture, as he discusses the social, political, and economic organization of the three regions under investigation, especially in his background chapters. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bale’s dissertation successfully tackles the origins of what modern people take for granted – inequality. His research is thus a much needed contribution to not just anthropology and archaeology, but has relevance to all of social science.

J. Rachel Lee
Department of Anthropology
University of Michigan

Primary Sources

Ulsan Institute of Cultural Properties Site Reports
Chungcheong Nam-do Historical-Cultural Center Site Reports
Gongju University Museum Site Reports
National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage Site Reports
Changwon National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage Site Reports

Dissertation Information

University of Toronto. 2011. 321 pp. Primary Advisor: Gary Crawford.


Image: A large-capacity red-burnished storage jar from the Nam-gang River valley, Korea, c. 850-550 BC. Photograph by Martin T. Bale.

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