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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Crafting Community: Exploring Identity and Interaction through Ceramics in late Neolithic and early Bronze Age Northwestern China
by Womack, Andrew, Ph.D., Yale University, 2017, 491; 10783474
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation addresses questions related to craft production, social identity, and interaction through a multifaceted analysis of ceramic production and use during the Majiayao (3200-2000BC) and Qijia (2300-1500BC) periods in the Tao River Valley of northwestern China's Gansu Province. Situated between the Gobi Desert to the north and the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau to the south, for millennia this area acted as a key conduit for interaction between groups in central China and the Eurasian steppe. Majiayao and Qijia communities played a vital role in adopting, adapting, and retransmitting new domesticates, technologies, and ideas in both directions, helping shape the course of both Chinese and steppe civilization.

Despite these contributions to the development and spread of Chinese civilization, however, this region of northwest China is often pigeonholed into the trope of cultural devolution, with climatic shifts forcing a change from sophisticated Majiayao farmers to the small-scale, possibly pastoral societies of the Qijia. This conclusion is based almost entirely on shifts in pottery form and decoration, with the large, elaborately painted urns of the Majiayao period being replaced by the smaller, mostly undecorated pottery that defines the Qijia period. This dissertation challenges these conclusions by investigating the relationship between craft production, consumer and producer identity, and social interaction in order to provide a more nuanced understanding of the continuities and changes occurring between the two periods.

Taking a communities of practice based approach to ceramic production, this research focuses first on identifying potential groups of producers through assessment of paste recipes and forming techniques. In order to identify these groups, sherds from four Majiayao and Qijia habitation and mortuary contexts were sampled and analyzed using petrographic analysis. This technique provides information not only on the mineralogical makeup of a vessel, but also can provide insight into specific paste recipes and production techniques. This study revealed striking differences between vessels from mortuary and habitation contexts during the Majiayao period, pointing to the potential use of mortuary rituals for the negotiation and construction of relationships with other communities. It also demonstrated surprising continuity in production knowledge and techniques between the two periods, showing that changes in pottery form and decoration are not necessarily accurate reflections of underlying shifts in social identity.

In addition to petrographic analysis, whole vessels from mortuary contexts were also examined in order to assess how they were produced and used. Use-wear analysis was employed in order to understand the use histories of individual vessels, revealing that the majority of pots placed in graves during both periods were well used before interment. Standardization analysis was also carried out in order to explore potential production differences between various vessel types. It was demonstrated that while production does appear to vary between vessel types, there is impressive continuity in degree of vessel uniformity between the Majiayao and Qijia periods.

Combining the results of these three techniques, this research is able to address not only the communities of practice who were making these vessels, but also the potential roles they played in building and mediating relationships between groups. Specifically, for the northern Tao River Valley, it appears that despite significant shifts in pottery form, mortuary rituals, and the relationships that were mediated by these items and events, underlying communities of practice persisted over the course of more than 600 years.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Underhill, Anne
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 79/05(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Archaeology, Cultural anthropology, East European Studies
Keywords: Ceramic Analysis, Communities of Practice, Northwestern China, Petrography, Use-Wear
Publication Number: 10783474
ISBN: 978-0-355-70940-7
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