Early Metallurgy in Asia

  • Bronze ArrowheadInvestigation of early metallurgy in southeast China and northern Vietnam during the period 1200–600 BCE.

    The emergence of metallurgy stands as a notable signpost of technological and cultural change in the ancient world. By the third millennium BCE, copper and bronze metallurgy had appeared in northern and northwest China, serving as the foundation for the dramatic development of metallurgy associated with the production of elaborate bronze vessels in northern China by 1500 BCE. Archaeologists have also paid attention to the timing and nature of early metallurgy in other parts of Asia, noting how such regional developments compare to those in northern China.

    Dr. Francis Allard has initiated a project that focuses on the earliest stages of metallurgy in southeast China and northern Vietnam, regions which appear to have shared a number of developmental features as regard to early metallurgy. Thus, the earliest metal artifacts—mostly small and simple objects such as axes, knives, awls, bells, and fishhooks—appear at around 1200 BCE in all of these areas, most likely the result of the rapid spread of metallurgical knowledge from a single area (probably central China).

    The project focuses on the investigation of early metallurgy in southeast China and northern Vietnam during the period 1200–600 BCE. The initial objectives of the project are as follows:

    1. Bronze Fish HookAssemble all of the published and unpublished data relevant to the topic. This consists mostly of information on bronze objects, stone molds, ceramic crucibles, and slag identified by archaeologists during the course of excavations.
    2. Analyze a sample of artifacts as a way to clarify the issue of technological and stylistic variability within and between regions. For example, one question of particular interest is the degree to which bronzes varied in their compositional make-up (i.e. relative proportion of copper, tin, lead, and arsenic). Such knowledge permits us to determine the extent and impact of shared knowledge on local practice at the earliest stages of technological development, and to test whether variability increases or decreases over time as region-wide technical improvements are made.
    3. Place the production of early bronze objects in their broader social and political contexts. Thus, the level of social complexity at the sites from which the metal objects were recovered (determined, for example, though the analysis of burials) helps clarify whether such early metallurgy was dependent on craft specialists attached to leaders who controlled the production of metal artifacts.

    Future objectives beyond those listed above include the identification of sources of ores and more detailed studies of casting and smelting processes.