The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Research Grants/Awards

Title of Project:
Turquoise Technology and Resource Procurement in China: From the Early Neolithic Jiahu to the Bronze Age Erlitou

Total Fund Awarded:
HK$1,002,490

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

Funding Source:
RGC General Research Fund 2018/19

Abstract of Research:
Turquoise has long been admired as a precious gem since prehistory. Its opaque, rich, striking sky-blue color was highly valued for its cultural, symbolic, and religious significance in ancient civilizations across North Africa (Sinai), Western Asia, Central Asia, and Central America. Over a century ago, little was known regarding turquoise in China. In recent years, however, archaeological breakthroughs reveal that Central China was one of the earliest regions in the world to use turquoise, and that it played a significant role in the emergence and evolution of ancient civilizations in China through the next 5000 years.

The earliest known turquoise in China was found in the early Neolithic. At Jiahu in Henan province, archaeologists unearthed over a thousand turquoise accessories dated to 9,000-8,000 BP. Later in the Bronze Age, turquoise manufacturing became more sophisticated as it was incorporated with bronze technology. We see this development at Erlitou in Henan (1750-1540BC). As turquoise resources were limited, obtaining turquoise often involved long distance expeditions. Aside from high procurement costs, production of turquoise objects also required complex techniques and high labor investment, adding to its great value. As only the Erlitou elite owned such precious objects, turquoise manifested as one of the material symbols of prestige.

This multidisciplinary project aims to describe the history of turquoise in the early Neolithic to the Bronze Age in ancient China. Jiahu and Erlitou will serve as central case studies to analyze the geological provenance, production technologies, in situ archaeological contexts, sociocultural contexts, and temporal and spatial distribution of excavated turquoise accessories and related artifacts. Our research team consists of international experts from China, Japan, United States, and Mexico, including lithic specialists for conducting comparative analyses of turquoise in China and Mexico, archaeologists of the associated sites, archaeometallurgists of the prehistoric mines, and a chemist to study chemical compositions of turquoise binding agents.

This project will be the most comprehensive firsthand analysis of turquoise raw material procurement, production technologies, transportation, exchanges, and abandonments in ancient China. We will systematically analyze the geological provenance, productions, inlay technology, and the binding substances of turquoise artifacts at Jiahu and Erlitou. With a preliminary database already developed, we expect to create the most extensive standardized database of turquoise in this region. The result of this project will contribute to the early history of turquoise technology, resource procurement, and long-distance human interactions in prehistoric China.