The most significant items of China’s Bronze Age, from about 2000-221 BC, are the amazing bronze vessels. These vessels, with their astounding decorations, played a major role in ritual practices. For the ancient Chinese people, such containers were endowed with the great power to connect the living with their gods and their ancestral spirits, to whom the people showed great respect. Therefore, the elite of the dynasty who owned these mysterious vessels obtained high status in the political system. The ancient Chinese were fascinated by this kind of golden metal, and produced large numbers of bronzes during the period. Indeed, archaeologists excavating an elite burial of the Late Shang Dynasty (14th century-11th century BC) called the Tomb of Fu Hao, belonging to a queen and military leader, recovered bronze artefacts with a combined total weight of more than 1,600kg. Such an astounding number drives people to ask the question: where did they get the copper to build the glorious Bronze Age?
Based on current archaeological evidence, most of the mining and smelting sites during the Bronze Age were found in the Yangtze River basin, which includes the most important natural copper deposits in China. Of these, Tongling city, located at the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, is the most important site. It has been famous for copper production since ancient times, and its reputation remains intact to this day.
In the ore district of Tongling city, quantities of ancient copper slag extend across the area. As a result, many assume this was one of the major copper resources for the ruling dynasty during the Bronze Age. Because all the ruling dynasties that created Chinese bronze culture are located to the north of the Yangtze River, this assumption suggests large-scale copper circulation from Tongling city to the central dynasty. But is this assumption correct? To answer the question, the School of Archaeology and Museology in Peking University decided to collaborate with the Archaeology Institute of Anhui province to excavate a smelting site in Tongling city.
The smelting site we excavated is called Xiajiadun, about 13km from the Yangtze River, and about 10km from the nearest copper mine. The excavation site covered an area of about 76m². The site was in use from about 1000-600 BC, during the rule of the Zhou Dynasty in China. Hundreds of samples of copper slag, furnace walls, ores, and smelting remains were recovered during excavation. But the discovery of the smelting furnace itself is the most important find. This smelting furnace dates to 1000 BC, making it the earliest smelting furnace yet found in China – the previous earliest dates to about 600-500 BC.
Most of the smelting furnace is well preserved. It comprises the foundations, a slag channel, the furnace door, and the furnace wall. What is exciting is that some parts of the furnace, such as the fired little pit, have never been found before. But perhaps the most unusual feature of this smelting furnace is its small size. It is only 0.48m by 0.36m, whereas smelting furnaces found in the past have been much bigger than this one. It is also rather more primitive than other examples. The size and structure of the smelting furnace suggest the quantity and quality of copper would have been rather limited. Moreover, the size of the smelting site itself is also very small, less than 3,000m2.
The large amount of ordinary domestic artefacts we found shows, we believe, that this was not just a specialised smelting site: it was also a residential site. There is a river nearby to provide the water, and it is interesting to note that the smelting furnace is located immediately beside the river. It is possible that the ore used for smelting was brought from the ore district just 10km away.
Based on all this evidence, it seems probable that copper production at this site was on a small scale, run by a family workshop. The goods were both intended for and used by people living here on the site, and there would have been no surplus products. We also found some copper artefacts, including arrows, knives, and fishhooks on the site. The casting technique is primitive, and compositional analysis shows no signs of adding lead or tin, all of which suggests a basic and self-sufficient copper production here.
After excavation, we carried out an archaeological survey of the area. From our research, we were able to locate more than 100 smelting sites spread across the whole of this region, all with several similar features to that at our Xiajiadun site. They are all located between 10km and 20km away from the ore district, and most are also both very small and close to the river. The dates for these smelting sites, based on the artefacts we recovered, correspond with those for our Xiajiadun site. Moreover, we can identify copper slag on all these sites, but only small quantities, which suggests small-scale copper production.
Considering all these facts, I believe the smelting sites in Tongling city were not capable of supplying copper to the ruling dynasty during the Bronze Age. Indeed, from our research, we know that the quantities of slag found in the ore district belong to a much later period. There is no large-scale copper production in this region around 1000 BC, and we still have not identified where copper for the Bronze Age ruling dynasty was sourced. However, we have planned excavations at other smelting sites along the Yangtze River, which we are confident will give us a clearer picture of copper production during China’s Bronze Age.
SOURCE: Li Haichao, Ph.D. student in the School of Archaeology and Museology, Peking University, China.
All images: Li Haichao.