Retracing the path of East Asian metallurgy

In the past decade, scholars have been working hard to develop a clearer picture of the origins and evolution of metallurgy and the diffusion of the designs and methods of metalwork objects into China and the rest of East Asia.

source of image: Seima-turbino (

A west-to east transmission of metallurgical methods was originally proposed, as suggested in the book Ancient China and its Eurasian Neighbors. Artifacts, Identity and Death in the Frontier, 3000–700 BCE, by Linduff, Sun, Cao, and Liu, Cambridge University Press (2017):

Although [the Xinjiang] route is not uniformly agreed upon (Shelach-Lavi 2009: 134–46), this western transmission has been thought to have passed through eastern Kazakhstan, especially as it is manifest in Semireiche, with Yamnaya, Afanasievo (copper) and Andronovo (tin bronze) peoples (Mei 2000: Fig. 3). From Xinjiang this knowledge has been thought to have traveled through the Gansu Corridor via the Qijia peoples (Bagley 1999) and then into territories controlled by dynastic China. The dating of this process is still a problem, as the sites and their contents in Xinjiang are consistently later than those in Gansu, suggesting that the point of contact was in Gansu and that the knowledge then spread from there westward.

The search is on for the missing links to link the metalwork finds from the west to the ones in the east. That picture is clarifying as new finds from local contiguous archaeological sites emerge, and as various theories are being put forward to plug in the missing links to the various early repositories of Chinese metalwork artifacts and to provide a picture of the pathways of imported and diffused metal technologies.

The first of the missing links in the puzzle to be resolved is that of the role of the Karasuk culture.

Karasuk culture

“… it is clear that Karasuk occupies a 500 year time span beginning 1400 or 1300 BC (Fig. 15). Thus, there are 300 or even 400 years break between the Seima-Turbino and the Karasuk ranges that are effectively blank. One would expect the appearance of new materials and the detailed study of older ones to bridge the gap. Even more indicative is the rapid spread of Karasuk forms mainly eastward, which differed diametrically from the Seima-Turbino movement westward (Fig. 18). A rather significant number of imitations of Karasuk metal forms are currently known from Ancient China. These imitations are well represented even in the “royal” complexes of Anyang cemetery, dated on the basis of written documents to the XIII to XI centuries BC, the period of the late Shang dynasty (Chang and Pingfang 2005: 150-176).
It is probable just at this time that active opposition between the most ancient Chinese civilizations and the steppe world begins. There is no doubt that the Karasuk antiquities were made by nomadic cattle herders: settlements of this culture are practically unknown to us.
Morphologically Karasuk differed sharply from the ancient Chinese metallurgy of Shang or Western Zhou times. The inhabitants of the Sayan-Altai always emphasized weapons: the well-known Karasuk curved one-edged knives with carved figured handles and the rarer daggers. These northern steppe (or to be more exact, taiga-steppe) forms – or rather their imitations – are also present at the Shang “royal” funerary complexes found chiefly in the famous Anyang necropolis.
It is obvious enough that the chain of Karasuk objects (or of objects similar to Karasuk prototypes) stretched almost 3500 km to the East: from the Sayan-Altay region, through Xinjang (Mei 2000, 2004), Mongolia (Erdenebataar 2004), Northern China (including Inner Mongolia) to the basin of Liao He and nearly to the Liaodong gulf (Wagner 2006: 101-276). The other line of distribution of the steppe forms has a more southern or southeastern direction. Similar products are known to us from semi-desert and desert foothills of the Altun-Shan and Shanxi-Shaanxi Plateau (Fig. 16). They approach right up to the territory on the Yellow River ruled by Shang governors (Chinese Archaeology 2003: 585-590).
All the same, we must note one rather essential difference between Karasuk and ancient Chinese metalwork. The lion’s share of the bronzes produced by Shang and Western Zhou metallurgists was directed towards sacral purposes connected, first of all, with diverse ritual and  magical ceremonies. The Karasuk metallurgy is incomparably more rational and easier to understand. It was oriented first of all to the creation of metal weapons. The decoration of the curved knives with figures of animals or certain ornamental patterns did not change the basic character of this northern handicraft. Plates, pendants and even the mysterious “horse yokes” were certainly subordinate to weapons in the introduction of the steppe founders and smiths”  Source: Evgeny Chernykh’s The “Steppe Belt” of stockbreeding cultures in Eurasia during the Eurasia during the Early Metal Age TRABAJOS DE PREHISTORIA, 65, N.º 2, Julio-Diciembre 2008, pp. 73-93, ISSN: 0082-5638

The recent excavation of a large, stone, fortified site at Shimao, on the northern edge of the Loess Plateau in Shaanxi Province, China, has according to a 2018 report, “radically changed our understanding of the events that precipitated the development of the first bronze casting in central China at Erlitou” see (Figure 1)

shimao culture

Figure 1. Map of northern China and the steppe, showing the sites named in the paper. The shaded area is an intermediate zone between the steppe and central China. The dotted line encircles a region with stone fortified sites. Map by Beichen Chen.

“It has long been accepted that the much earlier use of bronze in the steppe must have contributed to the development of China’s production and use of bronze. The finds from Shimao now provide direct evidence of one of the most probable sources of this revolutionary change.”

jades with teeth

A group of jades excavated at Erlitou, all with small projecting teeth: left) two sceptres; centre) an axe; right) the edges of two reaping knives. Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Science, Beijing Image credit: J. Rawson

The report compared single-edged knives,  jade sceptres(see above) and other bronze ornaments that had neat projecting teeth(see below), which were deemed a hallmark of ornaments from Shimao, and are also found on similar bronze ornaments in the Yenisei Valley, south Siberia and at the Karasuk site. The report concluded that such similarities were probably the consequence of a shared culture across the steppe and into the northern regions of the Loess Plateau, rather than of direct contact.”

bronze ornaments karasuk shimao taosi

Drawing of three bronze ornaments: a) Karasuk culture c. 1400–1200 BC, diameter around 100mm Abakan Museum; b) Shimao 2000–1800 BC, diameter around 120mm, private museum in Shenmu; c) excavated at Taosi, diameter around 125mm Shanxi province (Drawing by John Rawson).

Also, the report’s “comparisons join together the steppe, Shimao, Taosi and Erlitou. Thus, we here recognise that one of the routes by which Erlitou gained bronze technology was precipitated by climate change, which first brought more people to Shimao, and then, as a colder dry spell made agriculture difficult, drove bronze-using peoples south, first to Taosi and then to Erlitou.  …The finds from Shimao now provide direct evidence of one of the most probable sources of this revolutionary change. ”

However, in the search for the missing links, competing perspectives are emerging on which of the Eurasian archaeological cultures, are the “homeland” for Chinese and East Asian metallurgical technologies in Korea or Japan for example. As more cultural zones are being observed and their artefacts scrutinized, the possibility of multiple sources for metallurgical technologies for different types of metal objects such as weaponry, ritual and ornamental objects, must be acknowledged.

The next article focuses on alternative pathway of diffusion and spread of Seimo-Turbino culture’s metal spearheads metallurgy technology and methods into Northern China and eastwards.

Source: The Origins of Metallurgy in China byLin Meicun & Xiang Liu

“These new observations suggest that the distribution of metal spearheads from the Seima-Turbino Culture to northern China represents the diffusion and spread of the metallurgical technique. From the metallurgical perspective in particular, the bronze casting of spearheads indicates the origin of piece-mould casting and core-casting technology, which influenced the bronze vessel casting method in China. We therefore suggest that the early Chinese metallurgy of the Lower Xiajiadian Culture in the western Liao River area can be linked to the Seima-Turbino Culture; this technique had spread from the Altai Mountain area to northern China via the Taosi Culture. After spreading to the Lower Xiajiadian Culture, it finally arrived at the Qijia Culture of Qinghai and Gansu provinces in the west (Figure 3).”

Source: The Origins of Metallurgy in China, Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2017
antiquity 91 359, e6 (2017): 1–6 by Lin Meicun & Xiang Liu

According to the above picture, the northern technologies did not arrive in the supposedly straightforward route from Gansu in the west through Qijia culture to the east.

The Seima-Turbino phenomenon is a pattern of burial sites with similar bronze artifacts dated from 2100 BCE to 1900 BCE (originally dated to 1650 BCE onwards and recently re-dated to ca. 2300-1700 BCE found across northern Eurasia, particularly Siberia and Central Asia, from Finland to Mongolia. The homeland is considered to be the Altai Mountains. These findings have suggested a common point of cultural origin, possession of advanced metal working technology, and unexplained rapid migration. The buried were nomadic warriors and metal-workers, traveling on horseback or two-wheeled chariot.

The question that arises is whether Chinese bronze metallurgy developed from Karasuk-to-Xinjiang, west of Gansu direction or were there alternative provenances of metallurgy from the Seima-Turbino originating steppe origins? e following resource has been illuminating in plugging in the gaps and providing answers to the questions of provenance and origins.

The excerpted passages from Jianjun Mei’s Cultural Interaction between China and Central Asia during the Bronze Age pp 5-11 is an argument for connections between the Seima-Turbino phenomenon and Chinese metallurgy based on a review of the time chronology and examination of the artefact finds of the said archaeological zones:

” …for a better understanding of the early metals recovered
within the present borders of China, it is helpful to separate the early
Gansu finds from those found in the Central Plains of China. This is not just because the number of the early Gansu metals is large but also because their geographical location is significant. In light of the most recent archaeological evidence from Xinjiang, west of Gansu, it has become quite clear that Northwest China (which includes Gansu, Qinghai, and Xinjiang provinces, see Fig. 1) should be considered as a distinct region in terms of early copper-based metallurgy. … , there are at least three major advances that have dramatically influenced our understanding of early metallurgy in Northwest China.

Firstly, numerous early metal finds have been made in Gansu and Qinghai provinces, dating to the late third and early second millennia BC.

Secondly, a significant number of arsenical copper objects have been identified scientifically among the early Gansu metals.

Thirdly, a large number of tin bronze and arsenical copper objects dating to the first half of the second millennium BC have been discovered in eastern Xinjiang. The early Xinjiang metals are worthy of special attention because they provide the first concrete evidence for a connection between the early metals from Gansu and Qinghai and those from sites further west.

“The increasing evidence for the use of copper and copper alloys within the Qijia context further demonstrates the crucial position of the Qijia culture in the early development of metallurgy in Northwest China.
Together with previously reported metal finds, we now have had more than seventy metal objects excavated or recovered at various Qijia sites … this evidence has important implications for possible links between western Gansu and eastern Xinjiang during the second half of the third millennium BC, enabling us to suggest that there may have been contact between the Machang culture and the Afanasievo culture from southern Siberia (Mei 2000: 62).
The increasing evidence for the use of copper and copper alloys within the Qijia context further demonstrates the crucial position of the Qijia culture in the early development of metallurgy in Northwest China.
Together with previously reported metal finds, we now have had more than seventy metal objects excavated or recovered at various Qijia sites (Sun and Han 1981: 287–8; Debaine-Francfort 1995: 320–1; Mei 2000: 62). These objects show a wide range of types, including knives, awls, rings, axes, mirrors, plaques, and a spearhead. The possible link of the Qijia metals with the west has recently come to be discussed seriously. An (1993: 1117) speculates that the ‘sudden’ appearance of metal objects within the Qijia context probably resulted from cultural influence from the west through the prehistoric Silk Road. Debaine-Francfort (1995: 324–6) notices that some Qijia implement types, such as the socketed axes and the back-curved knife, generally parallel those from the Eurasian
steppe culture. Fitzgerald-Huber (1995: 43–52, 1997: 265–7) has conducted a detailed investigation of the issue. In her opinion, a variety of Qijia metal objects, notably the socketed axe and the handled knife with curved back from Xinglin (Fig. 2: 14, 15), the knife handle from Huangniangniangtai (Fig. 2: 9), as well as the small mirror and the socketed axe from Qijiaping (Fig. 2: 11, 12), suggest an exogenous origin, having their closest correlation in the Seima-Turbino complex in Siberia.7 The Zongzhai awl and knife blade, each inserted into bone handles (Fig. 2: 19), exhibit a method of hafting which has parallels in the Okunev culture in southern Siberia.8 She also considers such aspects of the Qijia culture as the wide range of domesticated animals, the use of stone circles as burial markers, and the practice of suttee as indicative of contact with northern nomadic cultures. …  Fitzgerald-Huber’s argument for contact between Qijia and SeimaTurbino seems to be supported further by the find of the socketed spearhead at Shenna in Xining, Qinghai …   The large number of spearheads from the Seima-Turbino context indicates that they are one of the characteristic types of the Seima-Turbino culture (Chernykh and Kuzminykh 1989: 63–90). The appearance of this type of spearhead at Shenna in Qinghai is unexpected and indeed surprising. Even more curious are its unusually large size and its blunt end, which suggest that it
would probably be used as a ritual object rather than a functional one. As Takahama (2000: 114) has pointed out, the manufacturing of the Shenna spearhead most likely imitated a Rostovka prototype. … It is worth noting that spearheads of a form similar to that of the Shenna piece have also been recovered in northern China. Two examples have so far come to our attention. One is in the collection of the Shaanxi Historical Museum, and was reported by S. V. Kiselev (1960: 261), who visited the Museum during the late 1950s.9 This spearhead is 35 centimetres long, similar to those from Rostovka but shorter than the Shenna piece (Fig. 4: 2).1″

“… the Shaanxi and Shanxi spearheads are lacking, their appearance in northern China may still be important for an understanding of possible contact with the steppes during the mid-second millennium BC or even earlier.
Their chronological discrepancy is a problem for arguments about contacts between Qijia and Seima-Turbino. The Qijia culture is radiocarbon dated to about 2000 BC (Zhang 1987: 158), while the generally accepted date for the Seima-Turbino culture is around the middle of the second millennium BC, although some Russian scholars are in favour of an earlier or later date (Chernykh 1992: 217). Fitzgerald-Huber (1995: 49–50) is inclined to place the Seima-Turbino a few centuries earlier on the basis of the new calibrated carbon-14 dates for a Sintashta-Petrovka burial, which fall within the range of 2135–1904 BC. However, it has to be admitted that the cultural context of the Seima-Turbino, as well as its relationship with the Sintashta-Petrovka culture, is still far from clear.11 Further research is needed to clarify the chronological position of the Seima-Turbino culture.
On the other hand, there are certain signs indicating that some of the
Qijia remains may be dated later than previously thought. The close
resemblance in typology and decoration between the Qijia mirror from Gamatai, Qinghai, and those from the Fuhao tomb of the Shang dynasty in Anyang, Henan (Fig. 6) has led to speculation that the lower date for the Qijia culture may extend to 1600 BC or even later (An 1993: 1113). Considering the close links between Qijia and Siba, which has been dated to 1950–1550 BC, it would seem reasonable and comfortable to place at least the later part of Qijia culture within the range of 2000–1700 BC. This new chronological view on Qijia would support arguments for the Qijia’s links with the Seima-Turbino culture, as well as other steppe cultures.”

Early bronze mirrors found in China: 1. from the Gamatai site of the Qijia culture in Qinghai; 2. mirrors of the Shang dynasty from Anyang, Henan (after Debaine-Francfort 1995: 323, figure 136). Source: Jiancun Mei, Cultural interaction between China and Central Asia during the Bronze Age

The role of the Siba culture has also been highlighting many of the Siba objects (270 copper and bronze objects, among which over 200 were unearthed from the Huoshaogou cemetery in Yumen, forty-eight from Ganguya, sixteen from Donghuishan and seven from Yingwoshu ) which have been noted to be comparable to Central Asian and ancient Near Eastern designs:

“When compared with the cases of the Machang and Qijia finds, the new finds of the Siba culture have an even stronger impact on our understanding of early metallurgy in the Gansu region. Our knowledge of the Siba culture remained rather poor until fairly recently. Previously, it was dated to the mid-second millennium BC and was thought to be contemporary with the latter part of the Qijia culture …

Collectively, the metal finds from various Siba sites seem to have provided us with long-sought missing links that could connect the Hexi Corridor with both the east and the west during the early Bronze Age.”

Mei’s paper also suggested that as some comparable bronze forms seen in Tianshanbeilu, Siba, and Qijia have also been recovered in north-western Xinjiang, such as the axes with the socket open at both ends and the back-curved sickle, and that some evidence has gradually emerged showing the significant existence of Andronovo-type cultures in north-western Xinjiang during the second millennium BC, Tianshanbeilu would seem to act as one of the links between the two cultural regions. From the point of view of cultural contact between the Hexi Corridor and the Eurasian steppe, it is possible to argue for the linkage between the region of eastern Xinjiang to the Eurasian steppe through northern and north-western Xinjiang.

My guess for now is that there are two ancient “metal roads” one to the Southwest and one to the East, perhaps best illustrated in the map below:

More studies need to be done to study the Qijia type of bronze mirror and its connection between the solar-rayed motif mirrors of the Xiongnu in Inner Mongolia and the western Han dynasty. Did a common prototype in the north evolve into the Han dynasty riguang and zhaoming solar-mirrors and how they arrived in Japan, becoming one of the more representative types of mirrors of the Yamato kingdom found in Japan.

Source: 倭で化けた鏡③日神大鏡 に貼られた 水銀産地と内行花文鏡 の画像

In 2001, Ts. Torbat discovered an intact bronze mirror during excavations of tomb at Ulaan Khoshuu in Tamir valley. The mirror belongs to the “riguarig” (“solar ray”) type. These Chinese riguang mirrors, said to be fairly common in China, have traditionally been identified as being made between the 2nd and the l st centuries BC, or during the Western Han dynasty. But these began to appear during the late 2nd century BC, did not become common until the 1st century BC, and were made even as late as the 1st century AD. They appeared contemporaneously and beyond even later into the Kofun period 5th to 6th c. in the Japanese archipelago (see Xiongnu Archaeology).

Hypothesized locations of Han commanderies  Image source: Carl Zha

Bronze mirrors diffused from the Lelang and other Han commanderies towards the south of Korea.

Imitation Chinese Han bronze mirrors from Taegu, Southeast Korea

The Japanese sun-motif mirrors that most represented the Yamato kingdom(although there is a varied typology), seem to have an origin closer to northern Asia, as such mirrors (see below) were found among the Xiongnu inhabiting areas of the Altai. Imitation riguang mirrors have also been found in Southern Korea (popular during the Former Han period), manifesting close ties and a system of exchange between Southern Korea and Japan. The Chinese bronze mirrors are a good indication of Chinese influence filtering down to the south from the Lelang Han commandery to the SE Korean Choyang-dong in Kyongju and Pyongni-dong in Taegu areas.  Other types of imitation Chinese bronze mirrors, prototypes originating in the imported types from the Lelang Han commandery,  were also made in Korea, and are determined to have been only made in the south.

The one Chinese bronze mirror found intact from Xiongnu burials in the Altai Image source: Metal Mirrors from Altai Sites of the Xiongnu Time

Investigations are ongoing into the pathways for transmission of other kinds of metalwork from the continent to Japan.

Continental influences can be seen from the Siberian steppe (1,600 B.C.E.) and Manchurian (100B.C.E.) Mandolin-shaped daggers which influenced the development of Korean Silla’s Mandolin-shaped daggers, in turn influencing those of Japan’s.

Sources and further reading:

Metal mirrors from the Altai sites of the Xiongnu time

A study on bronze mirrors in Xiongnu graves of Mongolia, (2011) XIONGNU ARCHAEOLOGY: Multidisciplinary Perspectives of the
First Steppe Empire in Inner Asia, ed. Ursula Brosseder, Bryan K. Miller

Hyung Il Pai, Constructing “Korean” origins pp 225~229

Evgeny Chernykh’s The “Steppe Belt” of stockbreeding cultures in Eurasia during the Eurasia during the Early Metal Age TRABAJOS DE PREHISTORIA, 65, N.º 2, Julio-Diciembre 2008, pp. 73-93, ISSN: 0082-5638 doi: 10.3989/tp.2008.08004

Linduff, Sun, Cao, and Liu, Ancient China and its Eurasian Neighbors. Artifacts, Identity and Death in the Frontier, 3000–700 BCE ,Cambridge University Press (2017)

Jianhua Yang; Huiqiu Shao, The Metal Road of the Eastern Eurasian Steppe pp 279-463| The Northern Zone of China and the Eurasian Steppe in the Early Iron Age

S. P. Grushin, Origins of various design elements in Seima-Turbino bronze artifacts Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia volume 26, pages61–67(2006)

The Origins of Metallurgy in China, Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2017
antiquity 91 359, e6 (2017): 1–6 by Lin Meicun & Xiang Liu

Evgenij Nikolayevich CHERNYKH, Metallurgical Provinces of Eurasia in the Early Metal Age: Problems of Interrelation ISIJ International, Vol. 54 (2014), No. 5, pp. 1002–1009

Jianjun Mei, Cultural Interaction between China and Central Asia during the Bronze Age

装飾古墳今昔紀行 Past and Present Trips to Decorated Ancient Tombs in Japan

Silla and Silk Road: An Early Period of Globalization by Mary Connor and Sung Kim

Shimao and Erlitou: new perspectives on the origins of the bronze industry in central China* Antiquity, Volume 91, Issue 355 February 2017 , e5