The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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The Archaeology of Iron Technology and the Sovereignty of the Han Dynasty in its Southern Periphery

Principal Investigator

LAM Weng Cheong

Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

Early Career Scheme

Abstract of Project

The aim of this project is to conduct research into Han imperial control in its southern periphery through an archaeological study of iron, a strategic material essential for agriculture and military control. Based on an integrated analysis of the manufacture and distribution system of iron from the present-day Guangzhou region, known as the core of Yue ethnic communities in the Han period, this study will address to what extent the iron manufacture and distribution system were monopolized by the Han Empire so as to maintain its dominance over its southern periphery.

Matching the size of the Roman Empire in the West, the Han dynasty emerged (206 BC−220 AD) as the largest empire in the East. However, how the Han dynasty ruled over its different peripheries is still a hotly debated topic in the literature. Especially in its peripheries along the southern and southeastern coastal area, unearthed administrative documents are rarely found, thus leaving the details of ruling strategies unanswered. Previous studies (e.g., Liu 1999) have often assumed that the Han Empire was highly dominant and that ethnic groups passively received “higher-end” Han culture. But as scholars (Brindley 2009; Di Cosmo 2009; Stein 2002) working on the Han and other ancient empires have pointed out, this sort of assumption overestimates the dominant role of ancient empires at the price of underestimating local agency in interaction. A more productive way to understand the Han imperial control should be based on a systematic archaeological analysis of Han-style material (e.g., iron), which is still greatly under investigated in the literature.

To address this long-standing issue, this project proposes an integrated approach to analyze iron objects from burial contexts in the Guangzhou region via two major methodologies: I. metallurgical analyses of iron objects to identify their techniques and II. statistical analyses of iron objects to identify patterns in consumption. Although the Guangzhou region was one major core where Han tombs are found in the southern periphery, none of these aspects of the iron industry has been systematically explored. With the two sets of new data, the combined archaeological approach tries to address these questions: (1) whether most of the iron samples analyzed were manufactured following the tradition of the Central Plains; (2) whether iron objects were restricted to certain social groups and whether its distribution was driven by free marketplace exchange or by state control; (3) Did a remarkable chronological change occur after the Han conquest of the area in 111 BC? The archaeological study of iron can provide fresh data for examining the three questions and the Han-dominance hypothesis from a “bottom-up” perspective.

The final outputs of this project will contribute to understanding several critical issues in a broader setting. Firstly, this project will provide first-hand data to depict the spread of iron technology to the south and its social role in the consolidation of the Han’s dominance. Secondly, this project will provide a framework for articulating the Han’s control of its southern periphery. Eventually, this archaeological study of iron will enhance research on the processes and mechanisms of the expansion, ethnic interaction, and political rulership of ancient empires in a comparative framework.

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