Production of Stone Spades and Emergence of the First State in the Yiluo region, China

Li Liu1, Xingcan Chen2 and John Webb1

1. La Trobe University, Australia. Email:
2. Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China. Email:

Cite this as: Li, L., Xingcan, C. and Webb, J. 2009 Production of Stone Spades and Emergence of the First State in the Yiluo region, China, Internet Archaeology 26.


The Yiluo region witnessed a long history of Neolithic development (c. 6000-2000 BC), followed by some rapid social changes during the Bronze Age (c. 2000-200 BC). This is a heartland of Chinese civilisation, as the earliest state emerged at the Erlitou site (c. 1900-1500 BC) in the centre of the Yiluo basin. Our Yiluo archaeology project, initiated in 1997, is a long-term internationally collaborative and interdisciplinary programme, which holds a key position in the quest for the origins of early states in China. We have employed a number of methods and approaches to investigate many aspects relating to social change in the region. The full-coverage regional survey has helped us to reveal settlement patterns, and identify important regional centres, some of which were craft production sites.

Spades were utilitarian in function and may have been primarily used by commoners for agricultural or other purposes. However, the sources of raw material were not widely available to every village, and some communities/social groups may have taken advantage of their settlement locations to control access to the raw material. Based on our research, production of stone tools most likely operated on a household basis, and the products were not only meant to fulfil the subsistence needs of makers and their neighbours, but also helped some individuals to gain higher social status and wealth through trade.

The fact that dolomite spades found their way up to 100km away from their place of manufacture indicates the existence of region-wide trade networks in the Erlitou hinterland. Through these networks, not only utilitarian items but also elite goods (e.g., white pottery drinking vessels), were circulated, suggesting that lesser elite and commoners in the Erlitou hinterland created their own opportunities in the competition for power, prestige and wealth. From this perspective, the social formation of early states in China was not only hierarchical (Liu and Chen 2003), but heterarchical at a regional level.

Stonemasons at Huizui were most likely independent craftsmen, whom we know little about in the traditional archaeological record. Our study on these specialised craftsmen sheds light on a new aspect of social formation in early Chinese civilisation.

As the Yiluo project is on-going, our studies on 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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