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Asian Archaeology

, Volume 1, Issue 1–2, pp 147–149 | Cite as

Roderick B. Campbell, Archaeology of the Chinese Bronze Age: From Erlitou to Anyang

(Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2014), 208 pp. ISBN: 9781931745987
  • Anke Hein
Book Review
  • 142 Downloads

The large number of archaeological discoveries coming out of the ground in China and making headlines on a nearly weekly basis have come to spark the interest of archaeologist and the general public alike, not only in China but also in other parts of the world. This new fascination with everything Chinese—one that goes beyond a mere interest in China’s rapid economic rise—is reflected in a large number of exhibitions of Chinese material culture as well as in college curricula where classes on early Chinese history and archaeology are becoming increasingly more common. Archaeologists working in other parts of the world likewise are intrigued with the huge body of archaeological material attributed to early Chinese states and civilization(s). One major problem for both teaching and research is the language barrier: archaeologists working in other parts of the world usually do not speak or read Chinese; neither do most college students at universities outside China.

Consequently, recent years have seen an increasing number of English-language books on Chinese archaeology that try to meet this demand. These publications fall into two major groups: introductory textbooks (e.g., Liu and Chen 2012; Shelach-Lavi 2015; Underhill 2013) and specialized regional studies (e.g., Flad 2011; Flad and Chen 2013; Liu 2004; Liu and Chen 2003; Shelach 1999, 2009; Underhill 2002). While the overview publications cover mostly material from the Central Plains, i.e., the area traditionally seen as the cradle of “Chinese Civilization,” the specialized studies focus on material from the border regions and/or they discuss a specific research question such as identity formation, the rise of social complexity, or the emergence of early states. What has been missing so far are comprehensive and critical overviews of the state of research on specific regions that can serve as a basis for future research. This is a lacuna that Roderick B. Campbell’s book, Archaeology of the Chinese Bronze Age: From Erlitou to Anyang, helps to fill.

At the outset, Campbell defines very clearly the scope, motivation, and aims of this book. The “Bronze Age” of his title is the second millennium BCE and the “China” he talks about comprises the Central Plains and adjacent regions, i.e., the area that “has been considered to be in the main current of dynastic history by subsequent regimes and, thus, central to later elite historiographical self-identification” (p. 14). This area and time period have been the focus of countless studies written by both Chinese and foreign scholars focusing on early states and the origins of “Chinese Civilization.” In contrast to much of the earlier scholarship, Campbell does not seek to fit his material into frameworks of “state,” “city,” or “civilization”; nor does he try to tell a story of a unilinear development from “primitive” beginnings to “complex societies” and the rise of a monolithic “Chinese culture.” Instead, he lets much of the ambiguity of the available evidence stand, introducing contemporaneous regional traditions together without splitting them up into discrete archaeological cultures.

At the beginning of his study, Campbell points out the problems inherent in the concept of archaeological cultures which in China are nearly exclusively based on ceramic typologies and then often equated with ethnic/political groups. To avoid this pitfall, Campbell discusses the material separately by main urban centers in chronological sequence, describing settlement structure, building remains, graves, and production workshops, before turning to the ceramic traditions. He starts with “The Erlitou Period (ca. 1850-1600 BCE)” (Chapter 2), then turns to “The Erligang Period: Zhengzhou and the Metropolitan Tradition” (Chapter 3; strangely without mentioning specific dates in the title), the “Xiaoshuangqiao-Huanbei Period (ca. 1400-1250 BCE)” (Chapter 4), and finally “The Anyang Period (ca. 1250-1050 BCE)” (Chapter 5). In this manner, he breaks up the framework provided by his main source, the Zhongguo kao gu xue – Xia Shang juan 中國考古學——夏商卷 (Zhongguo 2003, hereafter ZKXS) which structures the material in the chronological and cultural periods of Xia 夏/Erlitou 二里头 Culture, Early Shang 商 Period Shang Culture, Middle Shang Period Shang Culture, and Late Shang Period Shang Culture, followed by a section on the “border regions” (i.e., everything outside the Central Plains). Instead of keeping the border regions separate, Campbell integrates them into the appropriate chronological chapters but in a separate sub-section and organized by geographic subheadings (“North,” “South,” etc.). At the end of each chapter, he then integrates both “center” and “border region” into a general assessment of the period in question, highlighting the overlap and interconnectedness of developments in various parts of Bronze Age China.

For both the Central Plains and the border regions, Campbell avoids the term “culture” but speaks instead of “ceramic traditions,” “variants,” and “ceramic horizons”; the difference between these terms, however, are not always entirely clear. In the summary of the findings in the last chapter, for instance, the author suggests the presence of “three different ceramic traditions in Erlitou times (Erlitou, Luwangfen-Songyao, Xiaqiyuan), three separate Erligang variants in Erligang times (Erligang, Liulige, Taixi), and two variants in Xiaoshuangqiao-Huanbei times (Baijiazhuang, Caoyanzhuang)” which “coalesced into a single metropolitan ceramic tradition in the Anyang period (Yinxu)” (p. 186). The author himself mentions the problems inherent in calling the Erlitou period a “horizon”: the model he adopts from Peruvian archaeology distinguishes between horizons and intermediate periods but in the Chinese case there is “much evidence of change but none of collapse” (p. 59). One may argue that—even in the absence of abrupt breaks in material culture—the term “horizon” can still be used for a range of ceramic forms used during a specific time period throughout a larger region characterized by a variety of different burial forms and types of settlement. Without saying, though, this is what Campbell does in the case of Erligang.

Why Erlitou is supposed to have had several “ceramic traditions” and Erligang only “variants,” however, remains unclear. Furthermore, for the border regions, the description of all types of material evidence are grouped by “traditions” without distinguishing between the differences in distribution of ceramic types and grave forms, for instance. Here, the term “tradition” thus simply replaces the word “culture” without much change of content. This mostly applies to the border regions, though; for the material from the Central Plains that lies at the heart of this book, the author does indeed discuss ceramic traditions and other types of archaeological evidence separately. The lack of differentiation for the surrounding regions has several reasons: firstly, they are not the main focus of this book and thus are only discussed very briefly with no in-depth analysis; secondly, the state of research in the border regions and the way in which excavation reports and secondary literature present the material make it difficult to go beyond ceramic traditions. As long as settlements in the border regions remain unexcavated and “finer-grained ceramic research aimed at uncovering the practices of production and networks of exchange… behind ceramic tradition changes… are only in the beginning” (p. 186), a nuanced picture of cultural developments beyond ceramic types is difficult to attain. By using the term “tradition”—or more accurately “ceramic tradition”—instead of “culture,” Campbell alerts the reader to this problem at each and every step and therefore goes significantly beyond what the ZKXS does, even if the material grouping by “culture” and “ceramic group” are essentially the same.

The ZKXS is part of the Zhongguo kao gu xue 中國考古學 series published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and summarizing the archaeological material found in China up to the point of publication. The material is arranged by time period, at present comprising one volume each for Neolithic, Xia-Shang, Zhou, and Qin-Han, with more to come in the future. These publications provide very comprehensive and extremely useful summaries and references for all material published for each of those periods. As the Xia-Shang volume was published already in 2003 while the last ten years have seen a huge number of new discoveries, the list of references provided in ZKXS is naturally not up-to-date. Campbell takes recent discoveries into account, includes English-language references whenever possible, and makes the material comprehensible to an audience without Chinese-language skills or a specialized background in Chinese archaeology. Nevertheless, the intended audience is not primarily an undergraduate class (although students with a deeper interest in the Chinese Bronze Age would profit from reading this book), but a readership of historians and archaeologists with research interests in China. At the same time, this volume is considerably more than an English-language summary and supplementum to the ZKXS; the author does not simply summarize but reflects critically on the material and its interpretation, highlighting the history of research and Central Plains-centric and historiographic bias informing both the choice of fieldwork locations and the interpretation of the resultant finds.

Additionally, Campbell provides his own reading of the material in terms of developmental trajectories and the nature of the groups and urban centers that are the topic of this volume. Campbell takes a clear stance against Wheatley (1971), Chang (1983), and especially Shen (2003), arguing that Central Plains Bronze Age urban sites were not “king cities,” “cult centers,” or occupied by a royal family and/or ruling class. Instead, Campbell emphasizes the “role of the metropole as cultural, political, and sacred center of the world” while “the basic divisions of society and social identity were predicated on kin groups” even at Anyang 安阳 (p. 187). Most of this discussion only take place in the last chapter; during the main part of the book, the writing stays surprisingly descriptive and the author does not take an explicit stance on a number of controversies or interpretations. Indeed, the phrase “X is said to have done/been” is somewhat overused (occurring 19 times in Chapter 2 alone, sometimes more than once on the same page) and mostly not followed by an in-depth discussion of the accuracy of the cited claim. This descriptive nature of the main body of the text may be connected with the origins of the book itself: it grew out of the appendix to Campbell’s dissertation (Campbell 2007). While the heart of his argument and his analysis were published elsewhere (Campbell 2014), the present book provides Campbell’s reading of the archaeological material at hand for closer inspection and further analysis. The reader can thus follow the process—or rather inspect the results of the process—of the author’s coming to grips with the data that he collected for his research. What seems surprising then is the limited length of the book and the lack of tables listing site locations, grave assemblages, or object types, i.e., the very details that Campbell must have used for his own analyses. Instead, the book provides general summaries of the material evidence supported by one site distribution map for each time period, plans of the major sites discussed, and drawings of the main types for each variant of the ceramic traditions by which the material is arranged. For any actual analysis, one would thus have to go back to the ZKXS and ultimately to the excavation reports themselves.

Nevertheless, even scholars in good command of the Chinese language will profit significantly from consulting Campbell’s book as a starting point for future research that highlights gaps in our knowledge instead of trying to smooth them over in an overly streamlined narrative. In fact, the author explicitly states that he wants to complicate both of the familiar terms he uses in the title—“Chinese” and “Bronze Age”—to break up and move beyond the over-simplified historiographic narrative of a mono-linear development from early beginnings to one monolithic “Chinese culture/civilization.” The emphasis on the multiplicity of voices and developmental trajectories is very useful and provides a fresh view on a much-studied—but still insufficiently understood—body of material.

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Copyright information

© Research Center for Chinese Frontier Archaeology (RCCFA) and Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of ArchaeologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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