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Archaeometallurgical studies in China: some recent developments
and challenging issues
, Pu Wang
, Kunlong Chen
, Lu Wang
, Yingchen Wang
, Yaxiong Liu
The Institute of Historical Metallurgy and Materials, University of Science and Technology, Beijing, 100083, China
The Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Available online 23 February 2015
On the basis of a review of major research achievements over the past ten years, this paper discusses
some challenging issues in current studies of ancient Chinese metallurgy, with a focus on the beginnings
of bronze metallurgy in China, regional bronze technologies during the Shang dynasty, early de-
velopments of iron technology, emergence of lost-wax casting technology, manufacturing techniques of
gold objects, and Qin metallurgy. It will also offer some observations on future directions for the study of
ancient Chinese metallurgy.
©2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
The beginning of archaeometallurgical studies in China can be
traced back to the 1950s, when for the ﬁrst time a metallurgical
examination of dozens of iron objects of the Warring States and
Han periods recovered all over China was carried out (Hua et al.,
1960). The systematic application of modern analytical tech-
niques to the examination of ancient metals from archaeological
excavations only appeared in the late 1970s, in which the Archae-
ometallurgy Group of the Beijing University of Iron and Steel
Technology (BUIST), established in 1974, played a leading role, as
evidenced by the publication of both A Brief History of Chinese
Metallurgy and Ancient Metallurgy in China (BUIST, 1978).
During the 1980s and 1990s, considerable progress in the study
of ancient Chinese metallurgy was made both in China and abroad,
with the international conference series ‘Beginning of the Use of
Metals and Alloys (BUMA)’being established by Professors Tsun Ko
(Ke Jun) and Bob Maddin in 1981, and becoming a signiﬁcant
platform for scholarly exchanges between the East and the West
(Maddin, 1988). The middle and late 1990s witnessed the publi-
cation of a number of major scholarly treatises (Wagner, 1993; Li,
1994; USTB, 1994; Su et al., 1995; Hua, 1999), which demon-
strated a substantial step forward in studies of ancient Chinese
Since 2000, there have appeared a number of new trends in the
ﬁeld of archaeometallurgical studies. First of all, books on the basis
of postgraduate dissertations, which are mostly focused on a spe-
ciﬁc research issue, emerged to mark the arrival of a new genera-
tion of scholars in the ﬁeld, some of them trained in the West (Mei,
2000; Wang, 2002; Qian, 2006; Yao, 2006; Chen and Han, 2007; Li
and Han, 2011; Jia, 2011; Zhang, 2012; Huanget al., 2013). Secondly,
in addition to the BUMA conferences, more international sympo-
siums have been organized to accommodate growing interest in
ancient metal technology in China and Asia (Jett, 2003; Mei and
Rehren, 2009; Hanks and Linduff, 2009; Jett et al., 2012). Thirdly,
the origins of metallurgy in China and the role of the Eurasian
steppe continued to attract strong international interest (Linduff
et al., 2000; Linduff, 2004; Linduff and Mei, 2014). Finally, some
renowned scholars of the ﬁrst generation in the ﬁeld marked their
scholarly career with massive academic contributions (Han and Ko,
2007; Wagner, 2008; He, 2009).
More than 300 research papers on ancient Chinese metallurgy
have been published since 2000, demonstrating the rapid growth
of this ﬁeld. These papers cover a wide range of topics, including
early metallurgy (Xu et al., 2010a; IHMM, 2011; Mei et al., 2012,
2013), Shang bronze technology (Chen, K. et al., 2009a; Mei et al.,
2009; Ma et al., 2012; Cui and Wu, 2013), bronze casting technol-
ogy (casting moulds) in the Shang and Zhou dynasties (Li, Yungti
et al., 2007; Liu, 2009; Yue et al., 2012; Liu et al., 2013), early
mining and smelting sites (Li, Yanxiang et al., 2011; Huang and Li,
2012; Li et al., 2012), provenance studies (Li, Q. et al., 2005; Wei
et al., 2009, 2011), lead-isotopic analysis (Tian et al., 2010; Cui
*Corresponding author. The Institute of Historical Metallurgy and Materials,
University of Science and Technology, Beijing, 100083, China.
E-mail addresses: email@example.com,firstname.lastname@example.org (J. Mei).
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Journal of Archaeological Science
journal homepage: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/jas
0305-4403/©2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Journal of Archaeological Science 56 (2015) 221e232
and Wu, 2011, 2013; Mu et al., 2014), iron and steel technology
(Chen, J. et al., 2009, 2012; Han and Chen, 2013), lost-wax casting
(Zhou et al., 2006, 2009; Tan, 2007; Dong et al., 2008; Zhou, 2009;
Hua, 2010), manufacturing techniques of gold and silver objects
(Shao et al., 2010; Qin et al., 2011; Huang et al., 2012), and zinc
distillation (Zhou et al., 2012, 2014). It is worth mentioning that
more than 30 papers among them are in English, signifying a clear
trend of increasing academic exchanges between China and the
2. The six main topics
In this short review, it would be impossible to present a detailed
report on all these papers. Instead, we shall only discuss the
following six issues, namely early metallurgy, regional bronze
technologies during the Shang dynasty, early developments of iron
technology, emergence of lost-wax casting technology,
manufacturing techniques of gold objects, and Qin metallurgy. At
the end of this review, we shall offer some observations on future
directions in the study of ancient Chinese metallurgy.
2.1. Early metallurgy
The ﬁrst scientiﬁc examination of early copper and bronze ob-
jects recovered in China was published in the early 1980s (Sun and
Han, 1981), indicating that copper and bronze were in use in China
long before the Shang dynasty (16the11th centuries BC). Around
the mid-1990s, while the indigenous origins of bronze metallurgy
in China was still a prevalent view (Barnard, 1983; Ko, 1987;
Wagner, 1993:28e33), some scholars began to argue for the
introduction of bronze metallurgy from the West via the prehistoric
Silk Road (An, 1993; Fitzgerald-Huber, 1995; Bunker, 1998). Since
then, the beginnings and early development of copper and bronze
metallurgy within the borders of present-day China have become a
hot topic and attracted considerable and long-standing interest
among scholars both in China and the West (Linduff et al., 2000;
Linduff, 2004; Mei, 2009a; IHMM, 2011; Mei et al., 2012).
Most of the early copper and bronze objects recovered so far are
from the Gansu-Qinghai region (Fig. 1) and are associated with Qijia
and Siba cultures, which are roughly dated to the ﬁrst half of the
second millennium BC. Based on a number of new archaeological
ﬁnds and metallurgical analyses (Sun and Han 1997; Sun, 1998), a
fresh understanding of the early use of metals in the Gansu-Qinghai
region was obtained in the late 1990s, notably the identiﬁcation of
arsenical copper among the Siba metals (Li and Shui, 2000; Sun
et al., 2003). In recent years, new scientiﬁc examinations of cop-
per and bronze objects from the Zongri and Gamatai sites in
Qinghai (Fig. 1: 4, 5) have been carried out, and the analytical re-
sults have revealed for the ﬁrst time the existence of arsenical
copper among the Qijia metals (Xu et al., 2010a, 2010b). Also sig-
niﬁcant is a recent discovery of hundreds of copper and bronze
objects at the Mogou site in Gansu (Fig. 1: 6), which is believed to be
associated with the Qijia culture. Mei et al. (2012) report pre-
liminary examination results of 18 Mogou metals (Fig. 2), indicating
that tin bronze was the most important alloy used at the Mogou
site, while unalloyed copper (Cu) and other copper alloys, such as
leaded tin bronze (CueSnePb) and arsenical tin bronze
(CueSneAs), were also used. These new studies further conﬁrm the
crucial role the Gansu-Qinghai region played in the development of
copper and bronze metallurgy in China during the ﬁrst half of the
second millennium BC.
Interesting evidence for early metallurgical activities along the
Hexi Corridor in Gansu has also been obtained from the analysis of
sediments from Huoshiliang in northwestern Gansu (Fig. 1), which
shows the geochemical measurements for Cu, As, Zn, Pb, Ni and Fe.
On the basis of analysis results, Dodson et al. (2009) propose a
hypothesis that ﬁrst occurrence of Cu and As in the sediments arose
from smelting and runoff into the site between about 2135 and
1869 BC. Li, Xiaoqiang et al. (2010) further suggested that the
geochemical measurements of the Huoshiliang sediments for the
period of 4200e3700 BP actually recorded the earliest bronze
smelting in the region. It should also be noted that a copper
smelting site has been found at the so-called Heishuigou site (now
also known as ‘Xichengyi’) near Zhangye, in the middle of the Hexi
Corridor (Fig. 1: 3), which could be dated to the early second mil-
lennium BC on the basis of the ﬁnds of painted pottery (Mei et al.,
Early copper and bronze objects recovered in Xinjiang have been
subjected to extensive scientiﬁc examinations since the late 1990s,
revealing the predominant use of tin bronze as well as the existence
of arsenical copper in eastern Xinjiang during the ﬁrst half of the
second millennium BC (Mei et al., 1998; Mei and Shell, 1999; Mei,
2000; IHMM, 2001; Mei et al., 2002). Recent research on metal
objects recovered from the Xiaohe cemetery site in south Xinjiang
(Fig. 1: 1) presents further evidence for the early use of tin bronze in
Xinjiang during the early and middle second millennium BC (Mei
et al., 2013).
In the northern border areas of China, early copper and bronze
objects were found in contexts associated with the Zhukaigou and
Lower Xiajiadian cultures, which are also dated to early and middle
second millennium BC (Fig. 1:11;Bai, 2002). An earlier examination
of 13 Zhukaigou metal objects revealed that they are made of
copper (5) and CueSn or CueSnePb (8) (Li and Han, 2000). Metal
objects recovered from the Lower Xiajiadian culture sites are made
of CueSn or CueSnePb alloys, as shown by Li et al. (2003). A recent
examination of 9 metal objects excavated at the Erdaojingzi site in
Chifeng, Inner Mongolia (Fig. 1: 18) indicated that they are mostly
made of tin bronze (8), with only one object of unalloyed copper
(Wang et al., 2013), suggesting a diversity in composition among
the metals from different sites of the Lower Xiajiadian culture.
On the basis of new archaeological and archaeometallurgical
evidence, more and more scholars have come to argue that bronze
metallurgy was introduced into China from the Eurasian steppe
through Northwest China during the third millennium BC (Li, S.
2005; Liu and Li, 2007; Roberts et al., 2009; Mei et al., 2012;
Potts, 2012). However, the ﬁnds of a few early brass pieces recov-
ered in Shaanxi and Shandong, which could be dated to the
5the3rd millennia BC (Sun and Han, 1981), remain an unresolved
issue. Fan et al. (2010, 2012) revisited the issue by performing
simulation experiments as well as further examining the brass
piece unearthed at the Jiangzhai site in Xi'an, Shaanxi (Fig. 1: 14),
and suggested that the Jiangzhai brass piece utilized alloy produced
by a solid-state reduction process. This research implies an inde-
pendent invention of metallurgy in China, since the Jiangzhai brass
might be much earlier than earliest metal ﬁnds known so far in
Another challenging issue is whether the early copper and
bronze artifacts recovered in Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang were
actually made locally or imported from other regions. The new
research carried out by Dodson et al. (2009) clearly suggests the
existence of local bronze production along the Hexi Corridor during
the late third millennium BC. An early copper smelting site was also
located at the Heishuiguo site in Zhangye, in the middle of the Hexi
Corridor (Fig. 1:3;IHMM, 2011). Obviously, further research along
this line would help to clarify the position of local metallurgical
production as well as its relationship with Eurasian inﬂuence dur-
ing the late third and early second millennia BC.
The beginning of bronze metallurgy in the Central Plains of
China is an issue that has attracted extensive attention, but remains
poorly understood. Having ignored or discounted the ﬁnds of a few
J. Mei et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 56 (2015) 221e232222
early brass pieces, many scholars are inclined to argue that met-
allurgy was introduced into the Central Plains of China from
northwestern and northern parts of China (Li, S. 2005; Liu and Li,
2007, 2014). However, so far, evidence for supporting this argu-
ment remains weak, and further research is clearly needed in this
direction. Current archaeological evidence has presented a striking
contrast between NorthwesteNorth China and the Central Plains of
China in terms of the uses of early metals, with personal ornaments
predominating in NorthwesteNorth China, while ritual vessels
were most signiﬁcant in the Central Plains of China. The social and
cultural contexts for the beginnings of bronze metallurgy in the
different regions of China undoubtedly played a major role in these
processes (Mei, 2009b; Zhang and Chen, 2013). This issue is deﬁ-
nitely worthy of further research.
The recent debate on the beginning of bronze metallurgy in
Southeast Asia provides an international perspective on the issue of
early metallurgy in China (Ciarla, 2007; Pigott and Ciarla, 2007;
White and Hamilton, 2009; Higham et al., 2011). While Ciarla,
Pigott, Higham and colleagues seem to be in favour of a link be-
tween Northwest China/Eurasian Steppe, the Central Plains and
Southeast Asia, White and Hamilton have proposed a route linking
Northwest China/Eurasian Steppe with Southwest China and
Southeast Asia ein effect, by-passing the Central Plains. The jury
remains out of the paths and mechanisms of transmission, but all
agree that a Steppe-based tinebronze technology passed through
ancient China en route to Southeast Asia. The argument of White
and Hamilton actually suggests a route that would run from
Northwest China to Southeast Asia via Sichuan and Yunnan. In light
of this debate, the beginnings of bronze metallurgy in Yunnan and
Sichuan will deﬁnitely attract more research interest in the years to
2.2. Regional bronze technologies during the Shang dynasty
Scientiﬁc analyses of copper and bronze objects aim to charac-
terize the development of bronze technologies in different regions
in terms of their chemical compositions and manufacturing tech-
niques. Over the past ten years, steady progress has been seen in
the characterization of bronze technologies in a number of regions,
such as Shanxi, Henan, Shaanxi and Sichuan.
A copper smelting or foundry site of the early Shang period
(16the14th centuries BC) was found and excavated in Yuanqu,
Shanxi province (Fig. 1: 17), yielding remains of copper fragments,
slag and furnace walls. Cui et al. (2009) examined 7 samples of the
Fig. 1. A map showing the distribution of major sites mentioned in this paper: 1. Xiaohe; 2. Huoshaogou; 3. Heishuigou; 4. Gamatai; 5. Zongri; 6. Mogou; 7. Majiayuan; 8. San-
xingdui; 9. Jinsha; 10. Hanzhong; 11. Zhukaigou; 12. Shilou; 13. Liangdaicun; 14. Jiangzhai; 15. Laoniupo; 16. Houma; 17. Yuanqu; 18. Erdaojingzi; 19. Dongheishan; 20. Yinxu; 21.
Yexian; 22. Shuangdun; 23. Dayangzhou.
J. Mei et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 56 (2015) 221e232 223
metal remains from the Yuanqu site, and found that they are made
of CueSnePb (4), CueSn (2) and CueAs (1). Metallographic ex-
amination also revealed that the bronze knife containing over 22%
Sn presents a microstructure of quenching, the earliest evidence for
the practice of quenching recorded in archaeological metals in
China. The identiﬁcation of CueAs is also signiﬁcant for under-
standing the development of bronze metallurgy in the early Shang
Copper and bronze objects excavated at the Yinxu site in Any-
ang, Henan (Fig. 1: 20) represent the highest level of metallurgical
technology developed during the late Shang period (13the11th
centuries BC). Therefore, scientiﬁc analyses of the Yinxu bronzes
are of great signiﬁcance. Zhao (2004) carried out compositional
analysis of about 200 excavated bronze items, and found that, from
Phase I to Phase IV of the Yinxu culture, the tin content in the
vessels declined signiﬁcantly, while the lead content increased
gradually. A further analysis of bronzes excavated from the tomb
M1046 at Liujiazhuang, Yinxu not just conﬁrmed the previous
ﬁnding, but also pointed out that leaded tin bronzes with a high
level of lead content were the major alloys used during Phase IV of
the Yinxu culture (Zhao et al., 2008).
The Hanzhong region in southwest Shaanxi (Fig. 1: 10) province
has become well known among archaeologists since the 1950s
because of a number of discoveries of more than 700 copper and
bronze objects of the Shang dynasty (Fig. 3). Substantial discussion
of these bronzes has resulted, with little scientiﬁc analysis, how-
ever, being carried out. Chen Kunlong and collaborators have
recently carried out a systematic examination of more than 200
bronzes recovered in the Hanzhong region, revealing some aston-
ishing technical characteristics of these bronzes: while bronze
vessels are mostly made of CueSnePb and CueSn, the local-styled
sickle-shaped and sceptre-shaped objects are mainly made of un-
alloyed copper and a small number of special alloys, such as CueAs,
CueSb and CueAseNi (Chen, K. et al., 2009a, 2009b; Mei et al.,
2009). This revelation demonstrates a much more complex tech-
nological structure for Bronze Age Chinese metallurgy than was
hitherto known, and is thus signiﬁcant for further exploration of
Fig. 2. Some copper and bronze artifacts found at the Mogou site in Gansu: 1. armband; 2, 9. knives; 3, 5, 8. earrings; 4, 12. small ornaments; 5. 6. torque; 7. tubes; 10. bracelet; 11.
trumpet-earring; 13, 14. buttons; 15. beads.
Fig. 3. A copper mask of the late Shang dynasty recovered in Yangxian, Hanzhong,
J. Mei et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 56 (2015) 221e232224
the interaction between the Shang Kingdom and peripheral re-
gions, especially the remote areas in the southwest.
Signiﬁcant new analytical work has been carried out in recent
years on bronze artifacts recovered from two ceremonial pits at the
Sanxingdui site, Guanghan, Sichuan (Fig. 1: 8), which are dated to
the late Shang dynasty (13the11th centuries BC) and become well
known for their extraordinary typological characteristics (Fig. 4).
Ma et al. (2012) reported the examination results for 30 samples
taken from the Sanxingdui bronze objects, including ritual vessels
as well as trees and masks, indicating that while all ritual vessels
are made of CueSnePb, objects in local style such as trees and
masks are of CueSnePb and CueSn. Cui and Wu (2013) analysed 20
samples of Sanxingdui bronze objects (including vessels, trees and
masks) and found that they are all made of CueSnePb. On the basis
of lead isotope analyses of these bronze samples, they further
suggested that all bronze objects could have had the same prove-
nance regardless of their typological styles, a view that is different
from that proposed by Ma et al. (2012).
Another important site found in Sichuan is Jinsha, located in
Chengdu, Sichuan province (Fig. 1: 9), which can be dated to the late
Shang and early Zhou periods (11the10th centuries BC), slightly
later than the Sanxingdui site. Xiao et al. (2004) examined 13
bronze samples mostly taken from fragments excavated at the
Jinsha site, and found that they are made of CueSnePb (10), CueSn
(2) and CueSneAs (1). A further examination of 22 Jinsha bronze
samples was reported by Jin et al. (2004), revealing that they are
made of CueSnePb (13), CuePb (4), CueSn (3) and Cu (2). They also
carried out lead isotope analyses of 54 Jinsha bronze samples, and
found that a majority of these samples contain high radiogenic lead,
similar to the Sanxingdui bronzes, while one third of them contain
ordinary lead of different sources. Two ﬂat sheets were examined
by Wei et al. (2007) to show that they are made of tin bronze with
tin content over 22%. Metallographic examination also indicates
that these two bronze sheets were manufactured using the tech-
nology of hot-forging.
The above new research results have greatly advanced our un-
derstanding of regional developments of bronze metallurgy during
the Shang period in the following three aspects: ﬁrst, the wide use
and predominance of CueSnePb alloys among metallurgical cen-
ters during the Shang dynasty have become clear; second, the
identiﬁcation of special alloys such as CueAs, CueSb and
CueAseNi among the Shang metals has revealed the diversity of
Shang bronze metallurgy and the crucial role played by regional
metallurgical centres; third, the existence of high radiogenic lead
among the late Shang bronzes has become signiﬁcant for tra-
cingmetal sources as well as connections among regional metal-
lurgical centres. Many challenging issues concerning the
development of Shang bronze metallurgy, however, remain to be
To ﬁnd mineral resources for Shang bronze production or to
locate metal smelting sites is undoubtedly a major task for future
studies. While Jin and his colleagues continue to argue that
southwest China (Yunnan and Sichuan) was a major source for
supplying metals during the Shang dynasty (Jin, 2008), more and
more scholars tend to look for mineral resources for Shang metal-
lurgy in other regions, notably the Zhongtiao mountains in Shanxi,
the Qinling mountains in Shaanxi, and the lower and middle rea-
ches of the Yangtze River (Fig. 1;Cui et al., 2012). Although some
promising signs for copper mining and smelting during the Shang
dynasty have appeared in recent research, the overall picture re-
mains obscure. Furthermore, the pattern of metal circulation
revealed by the existence of high radiogenic lead remains a big
challenge for future studies, as it seems to point to a common
source supplying metals to several regional metallurgical centres
over a long period. Smelting sites found in Laoniupo and Huaiz-
henfang near Xi'an in Shaanxi province (Fig. 1: 15) are really
important for our understanding of Shang metallurgy. We also need
to ﬁnd local bronze foundries in other regional metallurgical
Another major challenging issue is the patterns and mecha-
nisms of regional interaction. As the research so far has already
revealed, while the Central Plains of China, especially Zhengzhou
and Anyang, played a leading role in the development of Shang
metallurgy, a number of regional metallurgical centres, such as
Hanzhong in Shaanxi, Sanxingdui and Jinsha in Sichuan, Xingan
in Jiangxi, and the Northern Zone, also emerged and demon-
strate a signiﬁcant presence. There is some evidence to show
that these regional centres seemed to be connected to each
other, and some forms of networking may have existed too. But
the general patterns and mechanisms of interaction among
these regional centres are still unclear and need to be clariﬁed
The third challenging issue is the social dimension of bronze
production. As we all know, Shang metallurgy is characterized by
its large-scale production of ritual bronze vessels using piece-
mould casting technology. It would be desirable to have a clear
understanding of how the whole production process was orga-
nized, such as who was responsible for the designs of vessel shapes,
how the technology was passed down, and how a foundry was
organized. Chang (2013a) applied production chain theory to
studying the Shang foundry sites, representing a new direction of
Fig. 4. A bronze ﬁgure head of the late Shang dynasty recovered at the Sanxingdui site,
Guanghan, Sichuan (After EC, 1994: 7).
J. Mei et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 56 (2015) 221e232 225
2.3. Early developments of iron technology
The beginnings of iron metallurgy and early developments of
iron technology in China have been a central topic in Chinese
archaeometallurgical studies over the past ten years. In the late
1980s and early 1990s, scholars already began to argue that iron
smelting technology was most likely introduced into the Central
Plains of China from the west via Xinjiang and the Hexi Corridor in
Gansu, as it seemed that the discoveries of iron objects in Xinjiang
could be dated to around 1000 BC, earlier than the iron ﬁnds in the
Central Plains of China (Chen, G. 1989; Tang, 1993). Guo (2009)
examined early iron objects recovered in Xinjiang and argued
that the earliest iron object found in Xinjiang can be dated to the
9th century BC. He further suggested that iron metallurgy may
have spread to the Central Plains of China around the end of the
9th century BC. Chen,J.(2010)indicated a cautious view on the
introduction of iron technology from outside and implied that the
ﬁnds of iron objects in the Central Plains of China possessed their
own characteristics and the technological basis for an indigenous
origin, though they are later than those found in Western Asia.
Chen, J. et al. (2013) further pointed out that early iron objects
found in the Central Plains of China are not later than those found
in Xinjiang, and their iron technologies show a markeddifference:
most iron objects recovered in Xinjiang are made of bloomery
iron; while iron objects the Central Plains of China are mostly
made of cast iron.
Fresh and interesting evidence is provided by recent scientiﬁc
examinations of early iron objects unearthed from archaeological
excavations in Shaanxi and Gansu. Chen, J. et al. (2009) reported
examination results of a knife and a dagger-axe, both made of
bronze but with an iron blade, which were excavated at the Tomb
No.27 of the Liangdaicun cemetery site in Hancheng, Shaanxi
province (Fig. 1: 13), and dated to the early Spring and Autumn
period (8the6th centuries BC). It was found that both blades were
hammered into shape from bloomery iron. This new analytical
evidence further demonstrates the region of the middle reaches of
the Yellow River could have been the place where iron metallurgy
ﬁrst emerged in the Central Plains of China.
Two iron fragments recently excavated at the Mogou cemetery
site in Lintan, Gansu (Fig. 1: 6) are of great signiﬁcance, since they
have been surprisingly dated to the 14th century BC. Scientiﬁc
examination of one of the fragments has revealed that it is made of
bloomery iron rather than meteoritic iron (Chen, J. et al., 2012). This
new archaeological ﬁnd and the examination result have raised a
great challenge for the exploration of the origins of iron metallurgy
in China. How to accommodate this new evidence into the
commonly held view of outside introduction would require further
research based on more archaeological discoveries of early iron
objects in Gansu and Xinjiang regions.
Another important work carried out by Liu and his colleagues
(2014) is the scientiﬁc study of iron objects excavated from
Dongheishan site, Hebei province (Fig. 1), which throws new light
on the development of iron and steel making technology in the
(5th century BC e3rd century AD). The research demonstrated
that cast iron technology and bloomery iron technology both
existed in the Yan region, with the former being always dominant
in the agricultural sector, while the latter fell out of use in military
production only in the Han dynasty. It has also shown that the
appearance of puddling and quenching techniques at the Dong-
heishan site appeared to be contemporaneous with the emer-
gence of these techniques elsewhere in China, and the use of co-
fusion processing may be the earliest documented in China. Yan g
et al. (2014) reported examination results of 12 iron objects
excavated from the Hujiaying site in Beijing (Fig. 1), which has
been dated to the late Warring States period (4the3rd centuries
BC). It has been shown that all these iron objects are made of cast
iron or decarburized iron and steel.
For the studies of early iron and steel technology in China, there
are three major issues requiring further research. First is the early
development of bloomery iron technology in China. The archaeo-
logical and archaeometallurgical ﬁnds have demonstrated the wide
use of bloomery iron technology during the early ﬁrst millennium
BC, especially in northwestern China, but so far no concrete evi-
dence for bloomery iron production sites has been found in China.
Second is the beginning of cast iron technology in the Central Plains
of China. The current archaeological ﬁnds of cast iron seems to
point to the region of south Shanxi and west Henan as a possible
place for the birth of cast iron technology in China, but the mech-
anism and driving force behind this signiﬁcant technological
innovation remain poorly understood and need to be addressed
further. The third issue is the dispersal and inﬂuence of iron tech-
nology from the Central Plains of China to surrounding regions
since the Warring States period. Although recent research has
begun to address this issue (Chen, J. et al., 2005; Chen and Han,
2007), there remain many unresolved issues, such as when and
how bronze weapons were replaced by iron weapons (Han and
2.4. Emergence of lost-wax casting technology in China
Over the past ten years, there has been a fervent debate on the
emergence of lost-wax casting in ancient China. Previously, it was
widely held that lost-wax casting technology was already in use
from the Spring and Autumn period (8the5th centuries BC), as
evidenced by the bronze vessels with complicated openwork
structures unearthed from tombs of the Chu state in Henan and the
Zeng state in Hubei (Fig. 5;Ren and Wang, 1987; Tan, 1996: 43; Hua
and Jia, 1983). Zhou Weirong et al. (2006) claimed that those bronze
vessels previously believed to be made by lost-wax casting were
actually cast in piece-moulds. They believed that the lost-wax
method was not a choice for the Bronze Age of China. They
further argued that lost-wax casting could not develop from a
Fig. 5. AZun and Pan vessel excavated from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (late 5th
century BC) in Suizhou, Hubei province (After SACH, 2008: 136).
J. Mei et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 56 (2015) 221e232226
technological environment dominated by piece-mould casting
practice (Zhou et al., 2007).
However, such a radical view failed to convince most of scholars
who advocated the emergence of lost-wax casting during the
Spring and Autumn period. Zhao Shigang (2006), the excavator of
the Chu tomb at Xiasi in Xichuan, Henan, presented further evi-
dence to show that the Jin vessel with complex openwork structure
from the Xiasi tomb could only be made by using lost-wax casting
technique. Tan (2007) not only insisted that the lost-wax casting
technique was in use in the Spring and Autumn period, but also
traced its origin to a so-called ‘burn-off method’which, in his
opinion, already came into use during the Shang dynasty. Li
Yuanzhi et al. (2007) carried out further examination of a hollow
bronze object from a tomb of the Xu state in Henan province, dated
to around 547 BC, and concluded that it was cast using the lost-wax
method. Some scholars provided further support by arguing for the
possible use of ‘lost-lead method’(Li, Zhiwei 2008)aswellasby
carrying out lost-wax reproduction experiment (Huang, Jinzhou
2008; Chen, Hongliang et al., 2009).
Dong et al. (2008) offered further observation evidence to
support their argument for the use of piece-mould method in
casting the Zun-Pan vessel. On the basis of examining ancient tex-
tual records on lost ewax casting, Zhou et al. (2009) pointed out
that ancient lost-wax casting method would not be capable to cast
such a complex object as the Zun-Pan vessel. However, further
counter-argument can be found in Hua (2010, 2013), showing no
sign of ending the debate. In his review of the debate, though he
himself was obviously in favour of the early appearance of lost
ewax casting, Zhang (2007) pointed out that visual examination
may not be sufﬁcient for making a judgement on the casting
method, and that the application of scientiﬁc examinations would
be necessary and essential.
The debate concerning the introduction of the lost-wax casting
technique into China has stimulated considerable interest in bronze
casting technologies in ancient China. While many previous claims
or conclusions need to be re-examined in light of new scientiﬁc
evidence, some attention should also be paid to the establishment
of a better understanding of the development of lost-wax tech-
nique in the West, especially in the Eurasian steppe (Chen, G. et al.,
2009). Considering that China closely interacted with the Eurasian
steppe since the late third millennium BC, it would be necessary to
investigate whether there is any possibility that the lost-wax
technique was introduced into China from the steppe region
(Bunker, 1983, 1988).
2.5. Manufacturing techniques of gold and silver objects
The appearance and uses of gold and silver artifacts in early
China is a puzzle in the eyes of some scholars (Bunker, 1993), since
it was not the supreme symbol of excellence that we see in the
West. For a long period, gold did not attract much attention
among scholars, because archaeological discoveries of early gold
and silver items were rather limited. Now the situation has begun
to change, as ﬁnds of early gold objects from archaeological ex-
cavations all over the country are increasing. Having brieﬂysur-
veyed the most recent discoveries of gold objects in present-day
China, Ma (2009) noted that the use of gold for personal orna-
ments began from the Western Zhou period (11the8th centuries
BC) and was introduced into the Central Plains of China from the
northern steppe region. Mei et al. (2013) carried out an exami-
nation of 7 gold earrings excavated at the Xiaohe cemetery, which
are dated to the mid-2nd millennium BC, the earliest found so far
in Xinjiang. The examination reveals that these earrings are all
made of natural AueAg alloys with Ag contents being in the range
In their detailed examination of gold ornaments (Fig. 6) exca-
vated recently at the Majiayuan cemetery in Zhangjiachuan county,
Gansu (Fig. 1: 6), Huang et al. (2009) have noted the employment of
a series of ﬁne-working techniques such as granulation and sol-
dering, which, in their opinion, reveal the presence of cultural in-
ﬂuence from the Mediterranean region via the Eurasian steppe
during the Warring States period (5the3rd centuries BC). They have
also found that the Majiayuan gold objects are made of natural gold
containing 5e32% silver and a small amount of copper (less than
3%), and the fabrication techniques include not just granulation and
soldering, but also forging, repousse, chasing and polishing,
demonstrating a relatively high level of gold manufacturing tech-
nology (Huang et al., 2012, 2013). Shao et al. (2010) also analysed 7
silver ornaments and 4 gold ornaments from the Majiayuan cem-
etery, and the results show that 6 silver ornaments contain a small
amount of copper at the level of 1.3e3.2%, while 1 silver ornament
is made of AgeAu alloy without any copper, and 4 gold ornaments
are of AueAg alloys. These scientiﬁc examinations have helped to
characterize gold and silver technology employed at the Majiayuan
site, though little information is available concerning the sources
for these gold and silver ornaments.
Another interesting work carried out by Qin et al. (2011) is the
examination of gold foil fragments excavated at the Shuangdun
cemetery in Bengbu, Anhui (Fig. 1: 22), which has been dated to the
late Spring and Autumn period (6the5th centuries BC). 6 samples
were examined and the results show they are made of AueAg with
Ag contents between 8 and 15%, while 3 samples also show sig-
niﬁcant contents of Hg in the range of 1e13%. On the basis of the
Fig. 6. A gold plaque in a bird and snake pattern excavated from the Majiayuan
cemetery in Zhangjiachuan, Gansu Province (After GIA, 2014: 40).
J. Mei et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 56 (2015) 221e232 227
signiﬁcant presence of Hg, they argued that these gold foils con-
taining Hg are probably the earliest evidence for the use of Hg in the
extraction of gold in ancient China.
Important analytical work of ancient gold objects has also been
undertaken in the USA. Using newly developed method of femto-
second laser ablation-inductively coupled mass spectrometry (LA-
ICP-MS), Brostoff et al. (2009) analysed a group of ancient Chinese
gold objects in the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M.
Sackler Gallery. They measured major, minor and trace element
concentrations in the gold fragments and found that it is possible to
establish ‘ﬁngerprint’patterns based on the association of silver,
palladium and platinum.
A silver box excavated from the tomb of Zhao Mao (late 2nd
century BC), the King of the Nanyue state of the Western Han
period, has become well known among scholars because of its
obvious similarity to Iranian silverware since it was ﬁrst discovered
in 1983 (Rawson, 1999:22e23). In light of recent archaeological
ﬁnds of similar metal boxes in many different sites in China, Nickel
(2012) proposed that the Nanyue silver box was produced most
probably during the 3rd century BC, and it was not made in
Western Asia or in Nanyue, but most likely in a Central China
workshop. This view presents a sharp contrast with what it was
The research undertaken so far on gold and silver ﬁnds in early
China are still quite limited. However, we may make three obser-
vations as follows: ﬁrst, most of early gold and silver ﬁnds come
from northwestern China, especially the so-called bi-metallic ob-
jects of gold and iron, suggesting a close link with the Eurasian
steppe in choosing gold and silver as personal ornament; second,
gold foils are the common ﬁnds in early China, especially in the
region of the Chu state in the south; third, little research has been
carried out on the sources of early gold and silver. Obviously, these
observations also raise some challenging issues, such as whether
gold ornaments recovered in northwestern China could have come
from the Eurasian steppe via trade, how manufacturing techniques
for gold foils emerged and developed, and where the local sources
for gold and silver were. As it has been recognized by many
scholars, the uses of gold and silver items in early China involved
many cultural and technological choices in different periods
(Bunker, 1993). Future research needs to identify these choices and
to clarify how these choices were made in a given social context.
2.6. Qin metallurgy
Although it only lasted for 15 years, the Qin dynasty (221e206
BC) successfully established a set of new political and cultural
system, which had deep and extensive inﬂuence on the develop-
ment of Chinese history. Recent research has also shed new light on
hundreds of metal objects excavated from the sacriﬁce pits of the
Mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin (259e210 BC). Li, Xiuzhen
et al. (2011) reported their signiﬁcant ﬁnds through examining
ﬁnishing marks present on the surfaces of the thousands of bronze
weapons recovered from the Terracotta Army pits, including the
use of a variety of chisels for making the inscriptions, and of ﬁles for
removing excess metal from surfaces, as well as the large-scale,
systematic use of rotary wheels to achieve an ideal ﬁnal polish.
They have also carried out a metrical and spatial analysis of
weapons recovered in the Terracotta Army pits, which reveals
remarkable aspects of the organization of the Qin workforce in
production cells, of the standardization, efﬁciency and quality-
control procedures employed, and of the sophisticated technical
knowledge of the weapon-makers (Martin
on-Torres et al., 2011; Li
et al., 2014).
Liao et al. (2010) examined metal strips for stone armour
excavated from a sacriﬁce pit of the mausoleum of the First
Emperor of Qin and found that they were made of unalloyed cop-
per. Based on metallographic observation, they suggested that the
manufacturing techniques consisted of repeated cold forging
combined with annealing heat treatment.
The painted bronze waterfowls unearthed from the sacriﬁce pit
K0007 in the precinct of the mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin
are a most unusual and outstanding ﬁnd in terms of their typology
and manufacturing technology. Shao et al. (2014) presented pre-
liminary technical examination results of these birds, revealing the
employment of a patch-repairing technique (Fig. 7). The patches
are shown to be of copperetin binary alloy and were shaped by
casting or hammering. They pointed out that such a repairing
technique has not been seen on pre-Qin bronzes so far, while it was
frequently found on the Egyptian and Greek bronze statues dated to
the 5the6th centuries BC. Therefore, the ﬁnd of patch-repairing
technique on the painted bronze waterfowls could be further evi-
dence for the presence of western inﬂuence in China during the Qin
and pre-Qin periods (Nickel, 2013).
There were many factors leading to the rise of the Qin Empire
during the late third century BC. Previously it was argued that the
Qin army may have been equipped with better or stronger bronze
or iron weapons (Wagner, 1993). It has also been revealed recently
that the Qin state developed its bronze metallurgy on the mineral
resources locally available (Jia, 2011). The study of metal remains
from the mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin, as it is reviewed
here, has just begun to offer new evidence for understanding the
mystery surrounding the rise of the Qin Empire. Further research is,
therefore, essential to clarify whether outside inﬂuence could have
played a role in this remarkable historical process.
3. Future research directions
This paper does not pretend to offer a comprehensive review of
all major research achievements in archaeometallurgical studies in
China. Instead, it only serves to highlight some research aspects in
which we are most interested. In fact, as we have pointed out in the
beginning of this paper, many important research results can also
be seen in other aspects, such as studies of ancient mining and
smelting sites, casting technology of ritual bronze vessels, bronze
technology in Yunnan and Guizhou, lead-isotopic analysis, simu-
lation experiments of ancient metallurgical processes, and metal
technology in the late periods such as zinc distillation technology.
Fig. 7. The neck of a bronze waterfowl excavated from the sacriﬁce pit K0007 in the
precinct of the mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin showing the places where the
repairing-patch may have been employed (After Shao et al., 2014:Fig. 3).
J. Mei et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 56 (2015) 221e232228
In the preceding sections, we have already offered some thoughts
on the challenging issues in each speciﬁc research aspect. Now let
us look at future research directions from a general perspective.
First of all, social and cultural dimensions of ancient metallur-
gical technologies will attract more and more research interest. As
we have seen, research in the past ten years is still characterized by
the heavy dominance of analysis-based work, which, to a large
extent, reﬂected the needs of so many new archaeological ﬁnds
from all over the country. Now, with the growing accumulation of
research data, especially analytical ones, it istime for some scholars
at least to begin to examine the developments of metallurgical
technology within wider social and cultural networks, in order to
have a better understanding of the relationship between technol-
ogy and society. In fact, some scholars have already begun to
discuss such issues as the social-cultural background for the rise of
piece-mould casting in China (Mei, 2009a; 2009b), the social
impact of the early use of copper objects (Li, H. 2011), as well as the
relationship between metallurgy and state formation in the Central
Plains of China (Zhang and Chen, 2013). Research based on the
theory of chaine operatoire to examine the foundry sites of the
Shang and Zhou dynasties also appeared and introduced a series of
new ideas about the organization of bronze production in early
China (Chang, 2013a; 2013b). It can, therefore, be expected that
future research will put more emphasis on the social and cultural
dimensions of ancient metallurgical technologies.
Secondly, an interdisciplinary approach will play an even more
signiﬁcant role in future research. As we have shown in the pre-
vious sections, some important research results were obtained
through the application of an interdisciplinary approach, such as
the analysis of sediments in Gansu (Dodson et al., 2009; Li et al.,
2010), new examination of ancient casting moulds (Liu et al.,
2013), provenance studies by analysing casting core materials
(Wei et al., 2007, 2011), and the metrical and spatial analysis of
bronze weapons from the First Emperor of Qin's Mausoleum
on-Torres et al., 2011; Li et al., 2014). These studies applied
research methods of other disciplines to the issues of ancient Chi-
nese metallurgy and proved to be successful and stimulating. The
results obtained from these interdisciplinary studies provide us
with many promising and signiﬁcant new ideas. The need for more
studies of primary production sites, including slag analyses for the
reconstruction of smelting processes or technologies, will become
increasingly strong, because more archaeologists in China have
come to realize the importance of mining and smelting sites and
would like to collaborate with metallurgists to pursue an inter-
disciplinary target. As it has been shown brieﬂy in previous sec-
tions, lead isotope measurements combined with trace element
analysis have already shown great potential for provenance studies
and will play a crucial role as a major interdisciplinary approach.
Finally, the role of outside inﬂuence in the development of metal
technology in China will continue to take central position in future
research. As we have pointed out, over the past ten years, this issue
has already attracted considerable research interest, focussing not
just on the beginnings of bronze and iron metallurgy, but also on
the early uses of gold and silver, as well as the introduction of lost-
wax casting. Recent archaeological ﬁnds in Northwest China and
North China have presented more material evidence pointing to
early cultural connections between China and the West (Rawson,
2010). More importantly, it has been increasingly recognized
among scholars that early China closely interacted with the outside
world throughout the whole Bronze and Iron Ages, especially with
the people who lived in the eastern Eurasian steppe, and many
early metallurgical innovations such as lost-wax casting, tinning,
metal-sheet forging, and gold-inlaying could be traced to a steppe
connection. We are, therefore, conﬁdent that early EasteWest
interaction will deﬁnitely be a major direction for future research.
We are most grateful to Professors Thilo Rehren and Robin
Torrence for their kind encouragement and patience. We
acknowledge kind help from Professor Vincent Pigott, who kindly
sent us his recent publications, which has been cited in this review.
We would like to thank Mr. John Moffett for kindly revising this
paper and three anonymous reviewers for their very helpful com-
ments. We would also like to thank all scholars who published
books and papers on Chinese archaeometallurgy over the past
decades, which are under review in this paper. This work was
supported by grants awarded by the National Natural Science
Foundation of China (Nos. 51074026; 51474029) and Administra-
tion of Cultural Heritage of China under the ‘Excellent Young
Scholars Research Project’(No. 2014220).
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