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Research Grants/Awards

Title of Project:
String Sawing Technique on Jades in Ancient East Asia

Total Fund Awarded:

Principal Investigator:
Professor TANG Chung, Department of History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Funding Source:
RGC General Research Fund 2012/13

Abstract of Research:
        This project aims to study string-sawing techniques seen on jades in Neolithic East Asia. Jade is a collective term applied to compact aggregates of either nephrite or jadeite. Nephrite was particularly popular in late Neolithic East Asia, and it has an interfelted microstructure that makes it extremely tough. We propose that knapping techniques in the Palaeolithic were no longer suitable for cutting nephrite raw materials and executing with high accuracy and delicacy due to this nature of the mineral, giving rise to the sawing technique. String-sawing uses a string coated with an abrasive to cut jades by rubbing it back and forth. Abundant traces of string-sawing have been found on the jades of Xinglongwa, Hongshan and Liangzhu cultures from 6000 to 3000 B.C., but many scholars argue that these traces are the results of wheel cutting, while those who have discussed the string sawing technique have only limited themselves to textual descriptions.
        To define such a technology with objective standards, we urgently need experiments that replicate use wear, microscopic observations of excavated artifacts, and comparisons of a large amount of data. The new standards produced will then allow sound analyses of string-sawing techniques, dissolving current disputes over prehistoric jade technology. All these considerations above form the basis of the proposed two-year project to analyse excavated specimens from China, Russia, Japan and Korea. We will fully review and use the chaîne opératoire approach in our survey, and systematically study tool marks through digital photography and polarizing and scanning electronic microscopes. The expected results and impact are:

  1. Establishment of an international database of standardised features and terminology to systematically define and document the string-sawing technique.
  2. Facilitation of future research on the distribution, dispersion and chronological development of this technique with reference to the standards created.
  3. As jades have long been highly esteemed in ancient China, the study of its production technology as a dynamic cultural phenomenon will also shed light on the social structures and worldviews of the societies concerned. The impact of this research reaches across and beyond East Asia, as the technique has also been found in the New World, such as in Mayan and Olmec cultures.