Archaeology of pottery illuminates China’s time-honored culture


Pottery drainpipes unearthed from Pingliangtai in Huaiyang, Henan Province Photo: Chen Mirong/CSST 

When presiding over the 39th group study session of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, said: “Through the continuous efforts of several generations of scholars, the research results of major projects, such as the project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization, proved that China’s history includes over one million years of humanity, 10,000 years of culture, and more than 5,000 years of civilization.” Pottery, as the most extensively excavated handicraft, plays an indispensable role in the study of a cultural history spanning 10,000 years and a civilization history of over 5,000 years.

Attributes of pottery

Pottery is the product of human manipulation of earth, water, wood, and fire. As an important handicraft, the pottery industry can be divided vertically into the production, distribution, consumption, and waste stages. These stages represent the dynamic connection between the natural world and human cultural systems, each containing the special significance and meaning of ceramics in terms of human-environment relationships, daily life, and social relations.

The production stage reflects the impact of the natural environment on humans, the transmission of handicraft techniques, and changes in production organization. The distribution stage reveals the myriad pathways by which pottery products were scattered and circulated. The consumption stage reflects the social status of users and the distinct functions of different objects.

Horizontally, pottery satisfies human survival needs such as when used for cooking and storage. In society, it can regulate social relations through trade, gifting, and possession. Culturally, pottery conveys aesthetic taste and beliefs through decoration, design, and special usage contexts.

Therefore, analysis of pottery, both vertically and horizontally, and from the perspectives of the environment and settlements, is an effective approach to understanding and interpreting the progression of ancient Chinese civilization.

Pottery remains are the most abundant among ancient artifacts. However, current research in this field primarily focuses on basic typological comparisons and analyses of the form and ornamentation of objects, or subjective evaluations of the craft and functions. Yet, pottery holds invaluable information about ancient society on various levels, resulting from the combined influences of the natural environment, economic structures, social systems, and belief systems.

Pottery serves not only as a cultural dating indicator but also as a medium through which we can interpret the natural and cultural landscapes, providing one of the most effective means to understand production and life in ancient societies. In order to advance archaeological research on pottery and the development of Chinese archaeology in the 21st century, it is imperative to employ technical analysis from multiple dimensions and perspectives.

Multidisciplinary research

General Secretary Xi Jinping noted that the latest technologies of such frontier subjects as biology, molecular biology, chemistry, geoscience, and physics have been used on the analysis of China’s ancient historical remains, which has provided the origin-tracing of Chinese civilization with solid scientific base, and broadened our knowledge of the country’s 5,000-plus-year history. In the field of pottery archaeology, it is imperative to examine artifacts from three distinct perspectives: craftsmanship and technique, origin and distribution, and function and significance.

The study of pottery-making crafts and technologies have been an important research topic since the emergence of modern Chinese archaeology. Prior to the 21st century, related research primarily relied on traditional archaeological methods such as visual observation, statistics, and simulation experiments. Extensive ethnological surveys on pottery were also conducted nation-wide. These research findings laid the epistemological foundation for us to understand the development history of pottery craftsmanship in China, providing important guidance for subsequent case analysis.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, growing attention has been paid to the role of scientific and technological analysis. To deepen the understanding of pottery-making techniques in different temporal and spatial conditions, scholars specializing in different fields, including chemical component analysis, petrographic analysis, medical imaging analysis, and fingerprint analysis, have collectively participated in the analysis of pottery craftsmanship and technology in ancient China. Through these interdisciplinary approaches, evidence that evaded traditional archaeology has been acquired, greatly expanding the breadth and depth of research on the history of ancient Chinese handicrafts.

Studying the origins and sources of pottery is essential for understanding the connection between pottery artifacts and society. Through typological analysis, traditional archaeology attempts to determine the origins of pottery by examining the distribution of different pottery types within a specific cultural region.

With the introduction of various approaches for scientific and technological analysis, we can clarify combination patterns of pottery components at a single site, or in a cultural area, in light of chemical component combination features of many objects, thus identifying places of origin for pottery artifacts unearthed from different sites.

It is also possible to deduce the origin of an artifact by identifying minerals and rock fragments present with the aid of petrographical slices and based on the distributive characteristics of geological environments surrounding the site. In addition, by comparing isotopic ratios in pottery objects with rocks from different sites, we can further determine the approximate origin of a specimen.

Once an artifact’s origin has been identified, we can then explore the social relationships behind its circulation by examining the different types of pottery found in each site.

The circulation of pottery, one of the most important handicraft products in the prehistoric era, mirrors complex social relations. For example, based on the distance and scale of circulation, as well as the identity of parties involved, we can determine whether the circulation was limited to small-scale barter or involved large-scale, cross-region commodity trade. It also helps us understand if it was a gesture of gift-giving among peers, or involved tributary relations among hierarchical ranks. Was the route of circulation direct from one point to the other, or circuitous via certain strongholds for logistical purposes? Were the pottery objects circulated between settlements of the same rank or between secondary and high-level settlements? Were the objects under circulation for everyday use, or were they valuable products of high quality and with rich ritual significance?

Such questions could shed light on the intricate political, economic, and cultural networks in ancient Chinese society at different levels. Therefore, research on pottery circulation cannot avoid integrating traditional archaeological analysis with analytical methodologies from disciplines such as geoscience, chemistry, historical geography, economics, philology, and anthropology. Only through interdisciplinary collaboration can we provide reliable data support for the study of the pottery industry economy and its implication for tracing the origins of Chinese civilization.

In studying the functional use of pottery, traditional archaeology focuses on combining the archaeological context of ceramics with macroscopic speculations on the functions of different types of artifacts, such as cooking vessels and ritual containers. This has laid the foundation for a preliminary understanding of the functions of different types of pottery. Currently, with the assistance of chemical and biological technologies like isotype, fatty acid, and paleo-protein analysis, residues detected in different pottery objects have enriched our understanding of ancient people’s dietary structure, sacrificial rites, as well as group and cultural communication. By extension, our perceptions of the origins, development course, and regional styles of Chinese civilization have also been refreshed.

Supporting origin-tracing studies

Throughout the extensive history of Chinese pottery, which spans over 10,000 years, there has been a gradual evolution from purely handmade earthenware, baked at low temperatures using simple techniques, to the production of high-quality ceramics requiring high firing temperatures. This progression led to the emergence of a wide variety of ceramics, with a particular emphasis on those crafted using the potter’s wheel.

Amidst technical developments, the origins and distribution of pottery underwent change, transitioning from drawing on local resources and decentralized production, to selection and intensive processing of raw materials, followed by centralized and large-scale production in settlements and even entire regions. Consequently, products were circulated within and across regions, even reaching remote places.

With regard to function, pottery was initially used solely for cooking, but over time, various types emerged, such as sacrificial vessels, banquet supplies, burial objects, implements of production, and building materials. In the long processes of technical updates, product diffusion, and usage extension, pottery remained entangled with the vast social network woven by ancient politics, economy, and culture. In-depth research on this type of historical relic, marked by a long history, wide scope of distribution, and multiple functions, is conducive to our deeper understanding of the distinctive features and formations of China’s historical development as civilization emerged.

Through the dedicated efforts of generations of archaeologists, Chinese pottery archaeology has yielded fruitful results, but technical analysis should be further enhanced. Research on places of origin and circulation is not fully systematic, and scientific and technological analysis of pottery’s functions remains in its infancy.

As General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out, tracing the origins of a civilization and research on its formation is a complex, time-consuming, and systematic project. Despite remarkable accomplishments, it is an arduous task and requires continuous, deepening efforts. Advancing the archaeology of pottery in the new era can not only contribute to the construction of archaeology with Chinse characteristics and style, but will also help deepen studies of Chinese civilization’s unique traits and forms, and bolster the building of a new form of human advancement.


Lu Qingyu is an assistant research fellow from the School of History and Culture at Shandong University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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