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Mortuary Ceramics and Social Organization in the Dawenkou and Majiayao Cultures

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image of Journal of East Asian Archaeology

Although significant advances in the study and interpretation of burials have been made over recent decades, archaeologists have also pointed to some of the pitfalls associated with trying to reconstruct past social organization from burial evidence. A long-term perspective that focuses on the non-utilitarian component of ceramic assemblages in the graves can address some of these concerns. This approach is used to examine and compare the mortuary practices of two Neolithic cultures in China, namely the Dawenkou Culture (ca. late fifth to mid-third millennium BC) and the Majiayao Culture (ca. mid-fourth to late third millennium BC). It is found that the non-utilitarian components of their mortuary ceramic assemblages differ markedly from one another. Dawenkou Culture burials are characterized by the increasing diversification over time of the ceramic assemblages and by the prominence of stylistically elaborate goblets and serving dishes. Such trends, it is argued, suggest a need for varied social interaction as a means of gaining and maintaining status and power. In contrast, Majiayao Culture burials are marked by the limited diversification of the ceramic assemblages over time and by the emerging prominence of large painted storage jars, suggesting that storage and redistribution may have played an important role in the structuration of society. Resulting in competitive emulation, this latter strategy provides competing elites with few opportunities to expand their power base.


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