The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Market System at the Conjunction of the Imperial Interregional Network: An Archaeological Study of Metal Objects in the Jingnan Region of the Han Empire

Principal Investigator

LAM Weng Cheong

Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

Trade and commodity exchange played an important role in the Han state (221 BCE – CE 220), as is clearly evidenced archaeologically in both the capital region and periphery. However, the nature of the market system in most intermediate regions within the Han Empire is still poorly understood. In order to investigate the market in frontier regions and interregional interaction, this project focuses on the Jingnan (荊南) region (southern Jingzhou province 荊州) as a case study to shed new light on this long-overlooked issue.

Jingnan is a geographical unit bounded by the Yangtze River to the north and lies mostly within present-day Hunan. Being an important intermediate region, Jingnan includes major communication routes connecting the imperial core to the Lingnan region where major maritime ports were found. Although metal artifacts, whose supply was closely controlled by the Han state, are often found in tombs in imperial peripheries, their distribution mechanism has not been explored before. For this reason, the PI launches an archaeological project to focus on metal objects and their underlying distribution system in Jingnan in order to enhance our understanding of the Han Empire’s control over the transportation network.

This project will integrate its results with the “distribution models” previously proposed by the PI in order to address the issue of regional markets. The project will employ three major methodologies: I. Digital database and GIS analysis; II. Compositional analysis and 3D-scanner recording; III. Cross-regional comparison and statistical analysis. Through these multi-disciplinary methods, the PI will attempt to determine if discoveries of metal objects can be correlated with distance from production or transportation centres, distance from centres of different ranks, and the ethnic affiliation of individuals buried in tombs. The PI will conduct a fieldwork employing scientific methods to study the chemical composition or fingerprints of bronze objects (especially mirrors) and to record other typical types of metal objects. Ultimately, the PI hopes to determine if the objects tested were potentially derived from a common source and if the distribution patterns in the Jingnan assemblage are indicative of a well-integrated market network.

The results of the project aim to: 1) understand the mechanism through which Han-style material cultures was circulated in the Jingnan region; 2) evaluate the development of the market system in the southern imperial periphery; and 3) illustrate the interregional market system and provide a new perspective to explain the extent to which the Han Empire integrated trade on various geographical scales.

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