3. Discussion and Conclusions

Spades, as digging tools, were utilitarian in function and primarily used by commoners for agricultural, construction, and other purposes. Compared to the prestige items (e.g., bronze and turquoise), which are most likely to have been made by permanently employed specialists in the major political centre at Erlitou, stone tools were evidently produced by independent specialists, who manufactured products for an unspecified mass demand, as defined by Brumfiel and Earle (1987, 5). Based on the information described above we can now address two issues: first, the mode of production of spade manufacture; and second, the relationship between craft specialisation (in this case, stone spades) and state formation in the Yiluo region.

3.1 The modes of spade production

As pointed out by Brumfiel and Earle, the products, working intensity, organisation, and productivity of independent specialists are guided by the principles of efficiency and security (Brumfiel and Earle 1987, 5). The principles of efficiency in production-distribution systems can be achieved by methods of 'cost-control devices', which include control over supply and production (Rathje 1975, 416; Torrence 1986, 40-8). This proposition is well supported by the production process of stone tools at Huizui (Ford 2007), and particularly by spade production and distribution in the Yiluo region.

The selection of oolitic dolomite for making spades seems to have served two purposes. First, it is a technological choice, favouring efficiency of raw material procurement. This raw material was readily obtained and easy to fabricate into an ideal shape for spades, but its use-life may not have been very long owing to the softness of the rock, as shown in the experimental study (Owen 2006). The ancient stonemasons seem to have prioritised ease of manufacture over the use-life of the finished tools. This strategy is consistent with mass production for trade by craft specialists, who would have emphasised efficiency of manufacture (Torrence 1986, 46-8). The second aspect favouring use of this raw material could have been efficiency through control over supply. Oolitic outcrops occur in relative concentrations on the lower levels of mountain ranges near arable land; controlling the access to quarries in such locations would have been easy for the tool producers in the nearby villages.

That the production communities obtained the raw material directly from the mountains suggests that these communities may have controlled the access to these outcrops, many of which are situated on the pathways to the mountains. Based on ethnographic accounts, the ownership over quarries was commonly exercised by lithic production groups world-wide, although it was expressed in various forms in different societies. The examples range from the rightful heritage of a clan (Arnhem Land in northern Australia), the monopoly by a small number of kinsmen belonging to a discrete ethnic group (Mt William greenstone quarry, Victoria, Australia), to the rights restricted to one section of a tribe (Highland New Guinea) (for a summary see Torrence 1986, 51-6). Theoretically, it is entirely possible that certain individuals in spade-making communities controlled the access to dolomite outcrops in the Songshan Mountains.

Based on our research, production of stone tools is most likely to have operated on a household basis. The stonemasons, who were also engaged in agricultural activities (Lee and Bestel 2007), are likely to have been part-time specialists. This mode of production can also be explained by the principles of efficiency and security, as independent specialists would usually conduct craft production on a part-time basis, in order to be buffered against fluctuations in supply and demand (Brumfiel and Earle 1987, 5).

3.2 Spade production and the early state

As resources of lithic raw material were unevenly distributed, some communities/social groups seem to have utilised advantageous features of their settlement locations to control access to raw material and production. There is no evidence for mass production of stone tools during the Yangshao period, when the social organisation of the settlements in the Yiluo region was relatively egalitarian in nature. The Longshan period witnessed the development of complex society in the region, coinciding with the emergence of specialisation in spade manufacture at Huizui. This industry appears to have rapidly expanded during the Erlitou period, as indicated by the occurrence of three more spade-production sites, whose major components of deposits all belong to the Erlitou period. Such a marked increase in spade manufacture paralleled the rise of the first state in this region. These correlations reflect increased demand for agricultural and construction tools associated with the rapid growth of population, at a time of social integration in the heartland of state formation.

The relatively equidistant distribution of the four spade-production settlements suggests a competitive relationship between them. Huizui may have been in competition with its counterparts to control the sources of raw material and to trade their products. This proposition will be tested in future by excavating the three other settlements, to see whether or not a similar manufacturing process took place there.

The fact that oolitic dolomite spades found their way to places some 100km away from their point of manufacture indicates the existence of region-wide trade networks in the Yiluo region. Through these networks, not only utilitarian items but also elite goods were circulated. Bronze objects, white pottery drinking vessels, and turquoise ornaments are typical items found in elite burials in the region, as mentioned above. The distribution of bronze vessels appears to have been confined within the Erlitou urban centre, but white pottery and turquoise objects have been found at several Erlitou sites over a broad region (Liu 2003; Fang 2006). At Huizui, both white pottery sherds and small pieces of turquoise have been uncovered from Erlitou deposits. These findings suggest that some individuals at Huizui actively participated in the exchange networks of both utilitarian and elite goods in the region. Those spades produced locally may have been used in exchange for other goods, including prestige items, through the trade networks. This state of affairs also suggests that lesser elite and commoners in the Erlitou hinterland created their own opportunities in the competition for power, prestige and wealth.

In summary, there are at least two modes of craft production in operation during the time of state formation in the Yiluo region. Full-time specialists were engaged in making high prestige goods (e.g., bronze and turquoise) in the political centre of Erlitou, while independent specialists were involved in the production of less important prestige items and utilitarian products (e.g., white pottery, pottery and stone tools) in the locations close to natural resources. The exchange systems of these products are unlikely to have all been controlled by the Erlitou high elite; rather, many independent specialists appear to have exercised power over raw material supply and the production and distribution of products. From this perspective, the social formation of early states in China was not only hierarchically centred at the Erlitou urban centre (Liu and Chen 2003), but heterarchically operated by local elites at a regional level.

Previous studies have often emphasised the production of elite goods, and less attention has been paid to independent craftsmen who produced utilitarian items for the majority of the population. Our study on specialised stone-tool production sheds light on a new aspect of social formation in early states in China. As the Yiluo project is on-going, our studies of stone-tool production are still preliminary. Our future research will certainly produce more elaborate and multi-faceted results for a better understanding of the development of craft specialisation in China.


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