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China's First Empire? Interpreting the Material Record of the Erligang Culture

Wang Haicheng discusses the widespread material culture known as the Erligang culture after a type site in near the modern city of Zhengzhou.

March 6, 2008 12:00am

A talk by Wang Haicheng

Thursday, March 06, 2008
4:00 PM - 5:00 PM

In the last few decades Chinese archaeology has documented a widespread material culture known as the Erligang culture after a type site in near the modern city of Zhengzhou. Large-scale dissemination of distinctive materials seems to have been fairly common at the beginning of civilizations, probably the best known instance being the “Uruk expansion” in ancient Mesopotamia. Additional close parallels are found in by the Indus Valley civilization in the Old World and the Olmec civilization in the New World. In all four cases, the homogeneity of material culture over a large area suggests something more than casual contact: something of great magnitude was taking place, an intense interaction of some kind. So far, however, specialists have reached no consensus as to the social mechanisms involved, and do not agree about how things, ideas, and/or people spread. Although writing seems to have been in use in all four civilizations, inscriptions are few and poorly understood. Thus it is only from material culture that we can hope to learn anything about the archaeological issues involved. By comparing the four material cultures, I hope to draw up a list of possible models for cultural expansion, models that might not occur to us if we focused just on one region. Two major questions will be addressed: What are the criteria for correlating archaeological remains with political structures? What is the logic of privileging elite objects or utilitarian utensils in describing and interpreting the evidence of expansion?
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Wang Haicheng earned his MA at Peking University (2000) and his PhD at Princeton (2007). He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Chinese Studies at UC Berkeley. His research interests focus on comparative studies of Bronze Age China and other early civilizations, but he is also interested in the art and archaeology of the Silk Routes. His dissertation is a cross-cultural study of the uses to which writing was put by early states in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Central Mexico, and the Maya region, with the Andean states included for comparative purposes. His  archaeological fieldwork has included both excavation and survey and has been divided between Neolithic and historical sites on the Silk Routes.