- Copper and Bronze Metallurgy in Late Prehistoric Xinjiang: Its Cultural Context and Relationship with Neighboring Regions
The excavation by Chinese archaeologists of naturally mummified Caucasoid individuals dating as early as the second millennium B.C. in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, China's westernmost province, are of unquestionable import in discussions of the movements of people across Eurasia in later prehistory. The cemeteries in which the Tarim mummies were found mark what is currently the easternmost presence of ancient Europoid peoples, representatives of the Eurasian steppe culture (see Barber 1999; Mair 1998; Mair and Mallory 2000). Metal artifacts in copper and its alloys stand among the most important possible archaeological markers of these wide-ranging movements. Jianjun Mei, in this publication of his doctoral thesis at the University of Cambridge, has opened the door on a wealth of hitherto uncirculated archaeological data both on the archaeology of Xinjiang province and on the coming of copper/bronze to this geographically and culturally pivotal region of desert and oases.
Mei seeks answers to four research questions: (1) when, where, and how copper and its alloys began to be used, (2) what metallurgical technologies were employed, (3) what the cultural context was for the beginning and early use of metals, and (4) what cultural connections and technological interaction existed between Xinjiang and its neighboring regions during the Bronze (c. 2000–1000 B.C.) and Iron Ages (c. 1000–300 B.C.). His overarching goal is to furnish an enhanced understanding of the archaeological and cultural contexts of late prehistoric Xinjiang , while at the same time offering a new perspective on how metallurgy spread into the province, and how this technology may have reached eastwards into the Chinese heartland.
In his introductory chapter Mei reviews both the background of the development of archaeology and the foci of pertinent prior research in Xinjiang. Crucial here is the role of external cultural influences in the development of settlement occupation. Moreover, it is clear from Mei's discussions that the current wave of archaeological research, much of it from Eurasia during the 1990s, has altered traditional thinking (even among the Chinese) about the development of Chinese civilization as an exclusively indigenous process, especially where metallurgy is concerned. This theme underpins discussion throughout the volume.
Mei divides the remainder of his publication into three major components. In the first component (Chapters 2 and 3) he reviews the archaeological evidence for at least fourteen Bronze Age cultures and a [End Page 167] similar number of Iron Age cultures from the various regions of Xinjiang (Chapter 2). He undertakes next a substantive typological investigation of six major categories of metal artifacts from these periods, e.g., implements, weapons, harness and chariot fittings, vessels, toilet articles, and ornaments (Chapter 3).
The second component (Chapters 4 and 5) consists of a review of previous analytical research on Xinjiang metal finds as well as an analytical program focused on metal samples supplied to him by local archaeologists. Chapter 4 presents the results from the battery of analyses he performed to observe microstructure and determine composition of 58 metal samples with a goal of comparing the technologies of the various cultural groups he has identified. In Chapter 5 his investigation becomes site specific and focuses on the important finds from the mining and smelting site of Nulasai in Nileke which, on current evidence, appears to date to the first millennium B.C., but may well be earlier. This site, with its uncommon finds of mines and associated production debris, is one of but a handful of such documented sites currently known across Eurasia.
In his final component (Chapters 6 and 7), Mei turns to a synthetic over view of cultural interrelationships between Xinjiang and regions to the east, west, and north. He concludes with a discussion of the development of copper and bronze metallurgy in the region. Significant new archaeological data, much of it from Chinese sources, is...