The Sichuan Basin (now divided between Sichuan province and Chongqing municipality) has a long and amply documented history as an inland salt-producing area in China. This region witnessed a number of technological breakthroughs that are significant even on a world-historical scale: the invention of deep-drilling (mid-eleventh century AD) and the first-ever wells drilled to a depth of more than 1000 m (early nineteenth century); the first-ever use of coal (ca. 0 AD), and the first-ever use of natural gas (ca. third century AD) as fuel for salt production. The region's subterraneous salt deposits have been, and remain today, an important element in the long-lasting economic prosperity of the Sichuan region. For the time since the founding of the unified Chinese empire in 221 BC, historical source materials and research about salt production, and especially about the administration of the governmentally imposed salt monopoly, are extremely numerous. By contrast, archaeological work concerned with the material remains of salt making and endeavoring to probe the prehistoric origins of salt-making in Sichuan only began in 1993 and especially in 1999, when a collaborative international research project to this effect was launched by the Archaeological Institute of Peking University (Prof. Li Shuicheng), the Sichuan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology (Sun Zhibin), and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology of UCLA (Prof. Lothar von Falkenhausen). Several European scholars, such as H. U. Vogel, O. Weller, and P. Gouletquer, have also been involved in this project. The project concentrated mainly on the ancient salt-manufacturing sites in the Ganjing River valley at Zhongba in Zhongxian (Chongqing municipality). Five years of fieldwork – two years of excavation at the important multiperiod site of Zhongba, followed by three years of data analysis – have yielded a large and representative body of evidence. It has been successfully established that the salt industry in the Ganjing River valley goes back to at least 2000 BC (late Neolithic), and that it was conducted from early on at an astonishingly large, almost industrial, scale. As in many other parts of the world, previous to the introduction of cheap iron, salt was made by using standardized pottery vessels known as briquetage, in which the brine was concentrated and boiled. Abundant faunal remains moreover testify to the likelihood that at least part of the salt was processed at the production site into a secondary alimentary product such as cured meat or fish-sauce.
It goes without saying that four millennia of salt production in the Ganjing River valley exerted a profound impact on the natural environment, and that it determined the cultural habits of the area's inhabitants. Over time, the salt industry became the major dynamo in the formation of a distinctive cultural landscape and of miniature urban settlement types adapted to the concerted and efficient exploitation of the area's resources. To investigate such wider linkages is the main goal of the research carried out within the Zhongba project. The sites investigated since 1999 have now been largely destroyed as a result of the recent construction of the Three Gorges Dam, but additional work on other ancient and middle-age salt production sites is planned elsewhere in the Upper Yangzi River Basin.
The important archaeological finds from the Ganjing river valley call for comprehensive, interdisciplinary study in light of the voluminous data on "salt archaeology" accumulated in more than one century of work on this topic in Europe and other areas of the world. There is now great interest, in China, in expanding such research, as many other ancient salt-producing sites are known to exist, both in inland areas such as Sichuan and southern Shanxi, and along the east coast. Thus, the workshop serves to introduce the new data to an international audience, to obtain input from colleagues in related fields, and to lay the ground for future collaborative endeavors. In relation to other fields of archaeology in China and in comparison to the state of art in briquetage research in other parts of the world, Chinese archaeology only very recently started to pay more attention to this important area of economic, social and cultural history. There can be no doubt that archaeological research will substantially enhance our knowledge especially of the early history of the Chinese salt industry which so far has been dominated in research by a text-centered approach. The promotion of briquetage research in China will help to fill an important gap in a comparative world history of salt production.
Prof. Hans Ulrich Vogel (Institute of Chinese and Korean Studies, Tübingen University)
Prof. Manfred K. H. Eggert (Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte und Archäologie des Mittelalters, Tübingen University)
Prof. Lothar von Falkenhausen (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA)
in cooperation with the Deutsch-Ostasiatisches Wissenschaftsforum (German-East Asian Science Forum) and supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation)
Prof. Dr. H. U. Vogel
Seminar für Sinologie und Koreanistik, Abteilung Sinologie
Tel.: 07071-29-72711 / Fax.: 07071-29-5733 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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