Institute of Archaeology
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Social Complexity in Early China: from the Neolithic to the Early Empire

This course will explore key issues in the archaeology of later Prehistoric and Early Historic China, with a particular focus on the understanding of changing patterns of social complexity as revealed through archaeological evidence from excavations and objects. The period covered will range from the early agricultural societies of the Neolithic to the unification of China in the Qin Empire (3rd c. BC).  Major themes will include the emergence of social complexity, craft production, and trade. The course will include an overview of the major categories of material culture, including ceramics, jades and bronzes in terms of their production, stylistics and exchange. Students will explore recent debates concerning how such artefacts are related to the creation of Chinese hierarchical societies and settlement patterns as revealed through archaeology. Sessions will combine lecture and seminar discussion. Students will also contribute by preparing shorter presentations for a student-led discussion.

Aims of the course

To develop knowledge of the basic chronological frameworks for China’s major regions from the Early Holocene up to the Qin/Han period and an understanding of environmental constraints on cultural development.  Themes covered will include in particular:

  • Differing trajectories to agriculture and sedentism across Chinese regions
  • Differing regional trajectories to craft production, trade and evidence for social hierarchy
  • Varied trajectories to complex societies and hypotheses of state formation
  • Processes of initial urbanization in China and how it has been defined and recognized
  • Differing regional chronologies of technological innovations, including agriculture, bronze metallurgy, jade carving, porcelain production, writing, horses and chariots, iron working

Learning Outcomes

To develop knowledge and understanding of:

  • Past human societies and their development towards social complexity and states in mainland China
  • A knowledge of the major cultural-historical divisions of Chinese archaeology, technological innovations and social complexity
  • Archaeological methods and theories as employed in the study of early China, in relation to agricultural origins, settlement patterns and state formation
  • The nature of archaeological analysis and interpretation, with reference to Chinese archaeology
  • The diverse nature of archaeological data and interpretation, in particular through the study of the culture history of various Chinese regions
  • The evidence for trade and cultural diffusion between Chinese regions and further afield
  • The role of scientific methods and theories as applied in archaeology

Teaching Methods

10 x 2 hours seminars, including a combination of lecture and open discussion, with one session dedicated to student power point presentations.


For registered students

  • Moodle page: open»
  • Turnitin id: 611909
  • Reading list: 

Availability: Running in 2013-14


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