The intersection of technology, manufacture, and society: an analysis of ceramic building materials of the Northern Wei dynasty from Datong, Shanxi, China
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In this dissertation I assess craft production during China’s contentious Northern Wei (or Beiwei) Dynasty (398-494 CE) from both technological and cultural perspectives. The Northern Wei were a “foreign” Xianbei ethnic group who imposed their rule over north China for almost a century. I combine materials analyses of architectural ceramics excavated at royal building sites in the dynasty’s capital city of Datong with historical texts to understand the environmental, political, ethnic, religious, and technological forces that shaped production. I conclude that production processes reflect the complex interaction of new political and religious ideas and practices with longstanding craft traditions. Analyses of mineral and chemical composition of architectural ceramic samples by petrographic thin section and instrumental neutron activation analysis show that artisans selected and processed raw clay materials to achieve certain technical properties, such as low-shrinkage, required for final products. They maintained and refined established techniques such as using molds to facilitate forming of the clay body, and employed downdraft kilns to maintain steady firing temperatures, as shown in thermal expansion tests. They also introduced new techniques such as methods of burnishing roof tiles to increase water resistance. Decorative changes, such as the appearance of lotus patterns on roof tile ends, reflect the expansion of Buddhist influences, underscoring that royal building materials also carried significant political and ritual power in addition to their functionality. These Beiwei materials also reveal details about craft organization: inscriptions found on roof tiles complement details from historical texts, suggesting that ethnic Han artisans worked in construction projects for their new Xianbei rulers. The lack of skilled artisans at this time of constant warfare forced the rulers to adopt a special household-based structure to control and maintain non-Xianbei artisans at a certain social level. With time, these artisans were able to use their skills to gain economic independence and a certain level of management over their production. Architectural ceramics reveal intertwined economic, social, and political variables that played crucial roles in the technological choices and organization of production during this key transitional period of China’s early medieval history.