The earliest use of iron in China

Published in Metals in antiquity, ed. by Suzanne M. M. Young, A. Mark Pollard, Paul Budd and Robert A. Ixer (BAR international series,792), Oxford: Archaeopress, 1999, pp. 1-9.

Donald B. Wagner

1. The state of the question

Over the centuries there have been numerous studies of when iron was first used in China, but until recently the only basis for a discussion of the question was in written texts. The terms of the debate were changed irrevocably by excavations in 1950-52 in Hui County, Henan.[1] Of 54 Warring States graves excavated here, seven yielded a total of 161 iron artefacts, including decorative objects, weapons, and implements. In 1953 there was another major find, the site of an iron foundry of the third century BC in Xinglong County, Hebei,[2] where cast-iron moulds for casting iron implements were found. More surprises were to come as these and other iron artefacts were subjected to metallographic examination, but the finding of large amounts of iron securely dated as early as the fourth century BC was remarkable enough in itself.

With the publication of more, and more relevant, archaeological material, many scholars have been attracted to the question. Huang Zhanyue, in an important article published in 1976, brought order to a confusion of claims and counter-claims.[3] Using rigorous philological criteria he rejected, one by one, all of the arguments based on written sources. Considering then the archaeological evidence, he rejected several arguments on such grounds as methodological confusion, incorrect dating, or inadequate reporting of excavation details. He concluded that the first use of iron in China was in the south, for the earliest iron artefacts so far found in China were from Changsha, Hunan (in the ancient Chinese state of Chu) and Luhe, Jiangsu (in the state of Wu).

When in the mid-1980's I wrote my own contribution to the problem, in two chapters of a book entitled Iron and steel in ancient China, the available archaeological material appeared to provide a moderately clear picture.[4] Several artefacts of meteoritic iron from the late Shang and early Western Zhou found in north China seemed to be irrelevant to later developments; and if one ignored claims that were not properly documented with archaeological and metallurgical details, it seemed that in China the smelting of iron from ore began, as Huang Zhanyue had suggested, in the south, sometime before the beginning of the fifth century BC. I felt, however, that I could narrow this further, to the state of Wu.[5] From there it spread within a century to the other major southern state, Chu, and within another century to the rest of the Zhou empire, almost entirely replacing bronze as the metal of choice for most practical implements and weapons. Earlier iron artefacts of non-Chinese nomadic peoples north of the Zhou empire (which I did not mention) appeared interesting but essentially irrelevant to the Chinese story: the rulers of the Zhou states had sufficient bronze for their purposes, and if they were aware of the new metal used by their northern neighbours they found it to be a poor substitute.

Even as that book was being printed new publications of archaeological material were undermining its story. What is available at the moment indicates that smelted iron definitely was in use in northwest China long before it was used in the south. A direct implication is that the technique of iron smelting came to northwest China from the West through Scythian intermediaries, for contacts with the iron-using nomadic peoples of Siberia were sufficiently intense that independent invention was hardly possible. Another surprising aspect of the new archaeological material is that it indicates that the early smiths may have used meteoritic and smelted iron interchangeably, so that the meteoritic iron artefacts have a significance which I had not earlier been willing to accept.

If iron-smelting technology came to China from the West, then the first iron smelting in China must have been done in bloomeries rather than, as I and some other writers have assumed, in blast furnaces.

2. Iron on the northern borders of the Zhou empire

According to Chester S. Chard's useful survey of Northeast Asian prehistory, by about 700 BC `there was marked cultural homogeneity . . . throughout the Eurasian steppe world, so that life in the Altai region has much in common with that of the Scythians of southern Russia.'[6] In the upper Yenisei valley, `during the fourth through the second centuries BC iron finally replaced bronze as the standard metal, a process that had taken place several centuries earlier among the Scythians. The time lag is probably explained by the very high quality of Altai bronze, which offered little inducement to change until iron-working had attained a comparable level locally.' I take this to mean that implicit or explicit evidence of a knowledge of iron is found here significantly earlier than the fourth century BC.

In Xinjiang some surprisingly early dates for iron have been published in recent years.[7] Iron is found in graves which for the most part show no sign at all of Chinese influence, and which have surprisingly early radiocarbon dates. Chen Ge gives a table of 35 radiocarbon dates (by three different laboratories) for graves in Xinjiang in which iron artefacts were found.[8] The dates can be summarised as follows:

There seems to be little room for doubt that iron was known here by the eighth century BC, but I would tend to be wary of the dates which are earlier than this, for they are difficult to fit in with what we know of iron in Siberia and China proper. They are best explained as the tail of the Gaussian distribution of radiocarbon dates of the eighth century BC.

Xinjiang seems to have had very little contact with the Central Plain before the Han period. There are also some early dates for iron in parts of Gansu, perhaps again pointing to a date in the eighth century BC for iron,[9] and here there are more signs of contact with the Central Plain.

The famous Frozen Tombs of Siberia, five barrows excavated at Pazyryk, in southern Siberia near the borders of Xinjiang and Mongolia, all contain iron artefacts.[10] These include horse-bits, daggers, and a hairpin. All are of wrought iron, none of cast iron.[11] A floating dendrochronology indicates that the tombs were constructed over a period of 48 years. Conventional dating methods suggest an absolute date in the late fifth century BC, and radiocarbon does not contradict this date. All of the tombs show clear Scythian influence, and most contain articles imported from China.

All of these dates for northern iron fit a pattern which requires no great strain of the reader's credulity: iron appears to have been introduced into Siberia by the Scythians, perhaps as early as the eighth century BC. Further east, in the Russian Maritime Province, it is something of a shock to find the following statement by Chard (1974: 94) without further discussion: `Iron appears in the Vladivostok area in the eleventh to twelfth centuries BC, coinciding with the development of the so-called Shell Mound or Sidemi culture.'[12] This is as early as the beginning of the Iron Age of Greece, and much earlier than iron anywhere else in Asia. Chard's date seems to be based on a single radiocarbon date, and should therefore not be considered reliable.[13]

We do not know whether the ancient northern iron artefacts were made locally or imported from further west. It seems a priori fairly likely that knowledge of the technology travelled with the people who used the artefacts, but there is not much in the way of real evidence one way or the other. There is some evidence that Korean iron technology may have come from the Scythians, and that this could have been as early as the eighth or seventh century BC.[14]

3. Early Chinese meteoritic and smelted iron.

The earliest evidence of the use of iron in the area of Shang and Zhou culture consists of bronze axeheads of several kinds with cast-in edges of meteoritic iron (e.g. Figure 2). All seem likely to be of the Shang or early Western Zhou period.[15] The bronze parts of these artefacts are clearly Chinese. There is room for the supposition that the iron parts were imports from elsewhere, but very little reason for it. More likely there were Chinese smiths in the Shang and early Zhou who hot-forged meteoritic iron and produced small edges to be cast into bronze axes and other edged weapons. Meteoritic iron is usually fairly hard, and these bronze-iron weapons are likely to have been superior to weapons of bronze alone, but meteoritic iron is so rare that these must always have been uncommon luxury items. We do not know whether these smiths developed their techniques themselves or learned them from elsewhere. The probability of independent invention seems high, but I have no information at all on the use of meteoritic iron in early Central Asia.

3.1. Bronze-iron artefacts of the state of Guo.

Evidence that the smithing of meteoritic iron is relevant to the later smithing of smelted iron in China is afforded by several iron artefacts from graves excavated in 1990-91 at Shangcunling in Sanmenxia, Henan, near the great bend of the Yellow River. An excavation report has not yet been published, but advance reports[16] indicate that five bronze-iron artefacts were found in the excavations. All five have been examined by metallurgists. A preliminary note on their findings indicates that three contained so much nickel that they clearly were made of meteoritic iron. In the other two nickel was not detected, and their microstructures also appear to indicate that they were made of smelted iron.[17]

So little information is presently available that it is not possible to make a definite statement on the dating of these artefacts. Earlier excavations in the same place, in 1956-7, included 234 burials and four related horse-burials.[18] Bronze inscriptions indicate that this was a cemetery of the minor state of Guo, including what appears to be the grave of a Crown Prince. The newly excavated graves are said also to be of the state of Guo. Historical sources indicate that Guo was conquered in 655 BC, and this date is believed to be the terminus ante quem for the graves.

Until further information is forthcoming on the iron artefacts and their context we can probably assume that they date between the ninth and seventh centuries BC. An interesting aspect is a possible connection westward, to the vicinity of Baoji, where we shall see that other early iron swords have been found. The sources cited above indicate that there was a state named Guo near Baoji; whether the Guo of the Shangcunling graves was related to this Guo is less certain, but some art historians believe they can see elements of nomadic culture in the décor of the Shangcunling bronzes.[19]

Finding meteoritic and smelted iron in the same context, seemingly wrought by the same artisans, is surprising, nearly as surprising as finding smelted iron at all at such an early date in China. More surprises are no doubt waiting for us, but it is clear that we must now look to the steppelands for the source of the earliest technology of iron smelting in China. Further evidence of this is afforded by a grave in Baoji, Shaanxi.

3.2. Gold-iron artefacts in a grave in Shaanxi.

A grave in Baoji Municipality, Shaanxi, dated to the late Spring and Autumn period, contains some remarkable gold-iron artefacts, including three short-swords (e.g. Figure 3), thirteen ring-headed knives, two knives with gold ring-head, glass back, and iron edge (Figure 4), and two other knives.[20] One of the short-swords has been examined by metallurgists, and was found to be of smelted rather than meteoritic iron.[21]

This is a typical Chinese small grave, but the grave-goods are highly unusual for a Chinese grave: there are no ceramic artefacts at all, there is a great deal of gold, and there are many artefacts which are more typical of the steppe cultures. It is difficult to date, but the date given by the excavators, the sixth century BC, seems secure enough.

With iron-using nomadic cultures close by, and clear signs of cultural influence from them, it is necessary to conclude that either the iron artefacts themselves, or the technology of their fabrication, came from the steppe peoples. The ring-handled knives might in principle have been made in China or anywhere in the steppelands. The origin of this design has long been a problem for archaeologists and art historians,[22] but the best guess at the moment is that its earliest development took place in Western Siberia.[23] It was a simple and useful design, and spread quickly; it became one of the typical Shang bronze artefact types, and is also found throughout the steppelands. The short-swords, on the other hand, are more specifically Chinese; the décor of their hilts is unusual, but similar sword-hilts have been found in China proper, and apparently nothing like them has been found outside China. While the sword-blades could have been made anywhere, the hilts were surely made by Chinese craftsmen, and it is only sensible to suppose that the blades were also made locally.

3.3. A Qin tomb in Gansu.

A bronze-iron short-sword (Figure 5) comes from a tomb excavated in Lingtai County, Gansu.[24] Lingtai is only about 60 km north of the ancient capital of Qin in Fengxiang County, Shaanxi, and comparison of burial styles as well as artefact styles shows clearly that this is a Qin tomb. The excavators date it to the eighth century BC, while Chen Ping argues for a slightly later date, in the seventh century BC.[25]

A sample taken from the sword-blade by workers at the Beijing University of Science and Technology turned out to be totally corroded, and they felt that it was not possible to determine whether the iron was meteoritic or smelted.

3.4. The introduction of the bloomery.

The evidence presented thus far suggests that iron-smelting techniques developed in the West had by the eighth century BC been brought by nomadic peoples of Central Asia all the way to the Pacific coast, and that these techniques diffused to the smiths of the Chinese states by way of various non-Chinese peoples of the northwest, in what is now Xinjiang. The Chinese smiths, now using smelted iron instead of meteoritic iron, continued to produce luxury articles such as swords and knives, with fittings of gold, jade, and bronze.

The earliest of this class of iron artefacts are found in the northwest, but by the end of the sixth century BC a few examples are found quite far away.[26] Perhaps the latest example, and the one found farthest afield, is a jade-hafted dagger found in what may have been a royal tomb in the northern part of Chu.[27] Almost nothing has been published about this interesting artefact, only a brief verbal description indicating that the blade has the shape of a willow leaf, with a rounded point. The total length is 22 cm, length of the cutting edge 12 cm, width 2.2 cm. It is entirely corroded, and no metallographic examination has been attempted. The excavators date the tomb to the beginning of the fifth century BC.

What part did these luxury edged weapons, of iron decorated with bronze, precious metals, and jade, play in the later development of iron technology in China? We lack the technical information needed for a careful answer to this question, but there is some reason to suggest that they had no great importance at all. One metallographic examination of a relevant artefact has been published. This is one of the short-swords from Baoji.[28] The blade is of pure iron, with zero carbon, rather than steel, and this was not a better metal for the purpose than bronze. In Roman Europe, Gallic swords were often of pure iron, and were so soft that they bent in use, so that warriors had to fall back from battle and straighten them. The Gauls used soft iron because it was available, not because it was better than bronze; this cannot be the explanation for the use of iron in the luxury products we have seen here.

There is a possible exception to the pattern in which the early iron artefacts found in northwest China are all luxury wrought iron products. The tomb of a Duke of Qin, believed by many to be Duke Jing, who died in 537 BC, was excavated in Fengxiang County, Shaanxi, in the period 1978-86. In the fill of the tomb `more than ten' iron digging implements were found. In a published photograph one of these appears to be almost surely cast iron.[29] At the moment we are dependent on journalistic accounts for all information about this tomb.[30] It is therefore not certain that the tomb really is as early as this, and more important, until a proper excavation report is published, it will not be clear whether the digging implements were found in undisturbed earth or in robber tunnels of later times. This would not be the first time that iron digging implements have been found in ancient robber tunnels.[31]

If, when the excavation report is published, it turns out that this tomb is indeed as old as some believe, and if the cast-iron digging implements are contemporary with the tomb, then the discussion that follows here will require radical revision, for I shall claim that the use of cast iron for practical implements began in south China, in a very different cultural context from that of Qin. It will be interesting to see how this question resolves itself.

4. Iron-casting and the blast furnace

The new evidence reviewed above definitely shows that wrought bloomery iron was the first smelted iron to be used in China. This has been a surprise, for not many years ago the available evidence was consistent with the hypothesis that China started with cast iron, only later developing the techniques of the blacksmith.[32] But while the use of wrought iron and the bloomery started in the northwest, and was a borrowed Western technique, iron casting was a Chinese invention. It seems to have started in the south.

If we restrict our view to properly published and reliably dated archaeological material the earliest cast iron artefacts have been found in south China. Perhaps the most famous is a lump of cast iron from a grave dated to the early fifth century BC in Luhe, Jiangsu, in the territory of the ancient state of Wu. Other iron artefacts from Wu which are either uncertainly dated or not properly published may be older.[33]

In the territory of the ancient state of Chu most of the evidence suggests a later date than this for the use of cast iron. The excavation of some 558 small and medium-sized graves at Yutaishan in Jiangling, Hubei, near the site of Ying, capital of Chu from 689 to 278 BC, has provided a chronological series for many aspects of Chu material culture.[34] Here iron artefacts do not appear until the early fourth century BC, and this suggests an approximate date for the widespread use of iron in Chu - though not, necessarily, for its first use there. The actual site of the capital has not yielded iron artefacts which are definitely earlier than this.[35] There have as yet been no metallographic examinations of these artefacts, but all appear to be of cast iron.

We have already noted a luxury iron dagger, presumably wrought, found in a royal tomb in the northern part of Chu, dated to the end of the sixth century BC. Practical iron implements, apparently cast, which may be equally old have been found at a Chu settlement site in Jingmen, Hubei, 75 km north of Jiangling.[36]

While it is now difficult to maintain that iron-smelting itself was independently developed in south China, it still seems quite likely that iron casting, and perhaps also the blast furnace, were developed here. And it still seems quite reasonable to connect this development with the use of bronze for agricultural implements in the state of Wu.

The written evidence shows that the population of Wu was seen in the north as `barbarian', and archaeological evidence shows that their material culture was indeed in significant ways different from that of the north.[37] They seem in particular to have had very different customs regarding the burial of the dead. These, together with some curious ritual animal-horns found in Wu contexts, suggest a completely different spiritual culture. On the other hand they adopted some important elements of material culture from the north, among which was bronze technology.

Bronze production was, in the Chinese states of the north, concentrated in a few very large centres. Over the centuries a narrow range of smelting and casting techniques were intensively developed, and the bronze-casting techniques developed in the Shang and Zhou foundries produced castings which are among the finest the world has known, even in modern times.

It was this highly sophisticated technology which the `barbarians' of the south learned from their northern contacts - exactly when this occurred is a matter of debate, but not important here. In a new cultural context this technology could be developed in new ways. New techniques were invented, and these techniques were applied to new uses, in particular to the production of agricultural implements (e.g. figs. 6, 7). Surprising numbers of these have been found, while comparatively few bronze implements, and none of the forms found here, are known from the north. Especially interesting are a number of bronze caps for digging implements which are clearly the models for later iron implement-caps.

In the Wu region copper deposits are small and scattered, and tin and lead deposits are rare; bronze agricultural implements must have been expensive. As agriculture in the region developed and became dependent on metal implements, it was necessary to find a cheaper metal. In one way or another it was discovered that iron could be cast; the problems involved in casting white cast iron could be solved, at least adequately for castings which need not be beautiful, because the Wu ironfounders had at their command the highly sophisticated bronze-casting techniques developed in the north.

This hypothesis is strengthened somewhat by the fact that the earliest cast-iron implements known, the implement caps found in Chu graves of the fourth century BC and later, have clear bronze prototypes found in the Wu region. An obvious weakness, on the other hand, is that no early iron implements of any kind excavated in the Wu region have yet been properly published.[38] An obvious answer to this objection is that Wu archaeology is still in its infancy; most finds of metal artefacts have been made by non-archaeologists, who might easily fail to recognise a badly corroded piece of iron as a valuable artefact, or even as an artefact at all.[39] Nevertheless the possibility should be held open that the development described here occurred in Chu rather than Wu: it is in Chu that the earliest cast-iron implements are found, and a few bronze agricultural implements have also been found in Chu contexts.

My original suggestion was that the use in Wu of large copper-smelting furnaces led directly to the discovery of iron. In these furnaces iron ores were used as a flux to reduce the melting point of the silica gangue of the copper ore. Much more iron ore than copper ore was used, and in normal operation the iron left the furnace harmlessly in the form of FeO in the slag. Improper furnace operation could lead to the production of metallic iron, and experimentation could have led in one way or another to the development of the iron blast furnace.[40]

That hypothesis might still explain the development of cast iron, but it has always suffered from the fact that it gives no explanation for the use of wrought iron in Wu just as early as cast iron.[41] It now seems more likely that bloomery iron smelting was introduced in Wu from the north, and that the first iron casting involved the carburisation and melting of iron blooms in a cupola furnace of the sort used for melting bronze. Precisely this is described in a German manuscript of 1454, and it is possible that iron-casting began in Europe in this way.[42]

In whatever way cast iron was discovered, for most purposes it would not have been a good material. It would have been very low in silicon, and therefore be what is called white cast iron, which is difficult to cast and also very hard and brittle. The only advantage would have been that it was cheaper than bronze. In the north the primary applications for bronze were weapons and symbolic objects of various kinds. Substitution of white cast iron for bronze in weaponry would have had disastrous effects, and casting difficulties would have made its use unlikely in fine ritual vessels.

The blast furnace and the finery were in use in China by the first century BC. If we take it that the earliest iron smelting in the south used the bloomery, and that iron casting began with the melting of iron blooms in a cupola furnace to cast agricultural implements, then the development of the blast furnace is quite easy to explain. Bloomery smelting is a delicately balanced operation, and can easily produce cast iron by mistake, as various modern experimenters have discovered. In the early West, until the advent of the iron cannon in Medieval times, no economically important use was known for cast iron, and the only intention in bloomery smelting was to produce wrought iron or steel. In some types of bloomery great skill was required to limit the carbon content of the iron produced.[43]

Lumps of cast iron produced in the bloomery would however melt just as easily in the cupola furnace as iron blooms (probably more easily), so that iron smelters who were engaged in producing iron for casting would have had no reason to care about the kind of iron they produced. Experience might easily have led, as many historians believe it later did in Medieval Europe, to the high bloomery or Stückofen, which often produced both wrought-iron blooms and flowing cast iron in the same operation. From there the development of the much more efficient blast furnace would have been straightforward. With the development of the finery to convert cast iron into wrought iron, the production of bloomery iron would have become uncompetitive, and in time gone out of use.

We do not know where and when this development might have taken place, nor do we know anything about the actual furnaces used for iron production in China before as late as the first century BC, so it would be unprofitable to speculate more here concerning details of the development of the blast furnace in China.

Recent studies of the origins of iron-smelting in the West stress that iron was not in the beginning a better metal than bronze. Iron seems to have been known here as early as 3000 BC, but first became an important metal about 1200 BC. It was originally put to use for what amount to economic reasons, an increased demand or a decreased supply of either copper or tin. Once the iron had been put to use, the smiths, working intensively with it, gradually learned more about its properties and possibilities. In particular they discovered various ways of making steel by adding carbon into the iron. Once these discoveries had been made, developed, and widely diffused, iron became the material of choice for most weapons and implements.

There is thus a certain parallel between the Western story and the story told here for China. In the beginning, in China, smelted iron may in about the eighth century BC have come into use as a cheap and inferior substitute for meteoritic iron in luxury weapons. As far as we know there were no great improvements in the techniques of the smith until in the south, perhaps in the sixth century BC, the founders of bronze agricultural implements discovered that they could cast iron and thus produce a useful product from a metal more readily available than bronze. How the cast-iron implements compared with bronze ones in practical use is difficult to know. The extreme hardness of white cast iron would have made it extremely wear-resistant, but also liable to break. The answer to this question is however not as important as the fact that in this application iron was surely economically superior to bronze.

Experience with the new material, cast iron, led to great improvements in its mechanical properties. In particular the development of what we now call malleable cast iron made cast iron a better material than bronze and at least competitive with wrought iron or steel.


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Click on any figure to see it enlarged.

Figure 1. Map of China, showing the places mentioned in the text. Parts of this figure courtesy of Digital Wisdom, Tappahannock, Virginia, USA.

Figure 2. Photograph of a bronze-iron yue axehead found in a Shang-period grave excavated at Liujiahe in Pinggu County, Beijing Municipality, reproduced from Yuan Jinjing & Zhang Xiande (1977, pl. 1.1); cf. Anon. (1990, pp. 37-9). Remaining dimensions 8.4 x 5 cm.

Figure 3. Sketch of an iron short-sword with inlaid gold hilt from Grave no. M2 at Yimencun in Baoji Municipality, Shaanxi (artefact no. M2: 1), reproduced from Tian Renxiao (1993, p. 4, fig. 7). Total length 35.2 cm, breadth of blade 4 cm.

Figure 4. Sketch of two knives with gold ring-heads from Grave no. M2 at Yimencun in Baoji Municipality, Shaanxi, reproduced from Tian Renxiao (1993, p. 6, fig. 11). Upper (artefact M2: 4): iron blade; total length 23.4 cm. Lower (artefact no. M2: 18): bronze blade, fragmentary length 24 cm.

Figure 5. Sketch of a fragment of a bronze-iron short-sword from Tomb no. M1 at Jingjiazhuang in Lingtai County, Gansu (artefact no. M1:14), reproduced from Liu Dezhen & Zhu Jiantang (1981, p. 299). Length of bronze haft 8.5 cm, fragmentary iron blade 9 cm.

Figure 6. Sawtoothed sickle-blade, with magnified detail and cross-section, reproduced from Yun Hsiang (1985, p. 260, fig. 4).

Figure 7. Bronze caps for digging implements. Provenances: 1. Tomb no. 2 at Chengqiao in Luhe, Jiangsu, dated early 5th century BC. Anon. (1974, p. 119). On this tomb see Wagner (1993, pp. 60-80). 2. From a tomb at Jiulidun in Shucheng, Anhui, dated by the excavators, on the basis of bronze inscriptions, to the late Spring and Autumn period. Length 7.8 cm, breadth of edge 9.4 cm. Yang Jiuxia (1982, p. 237). 3. Found in a scrap metal heap in Nanchang, Jiangxi, in 1975. Length 5.8 cm, breadth of edge 6.2 cm. Li Jiahe et al. (1977, pp. 60, 61); these authors date the artefact to the Shang period, but do not state the reason for this judgement. 5. Found in the fill of tomb no. M5 at Xi'eshan in Jiangling, Hubei, dated by the excavators to the fourth century BC. Length 9.8 cm, breadth of edge 11 cm. Yang Dingai (1984, p. 522).


[1] Excavation report, Anon. (1956); see also An Zhimin (1990); Paul-David (1954); Wagner (1993, pp. 199-206).

[2] Excavation report Zheng Shaozong (1956); see also Anon. (1980); Li Xueqin (1985, p. 327).

[3] Huang Zhanyue (1976).

[4] Wagner (1993, pp. 51-146).

[5] In this I largely followed Huang Zhanyue. Since his article the new excavations of the Chu capital in Jiangling, Hubei, had discredited certain assumptions on which the dating of the Changsha material had been based; see Wagner (1987); Wagner (1993, pp. 86-90); Zhou Shirong (1990). With the Changsha material essentially undatable, this put the use of iron in Chu at least a century later than in Wu. The most recent survey of the problem of the origin of iron smelting in China, by Tang Jigen (1993), accepts the greater part of Huang Zhanyue's conclusions, unfortunately including the now-obsolete dating of the Changsha material.

[6] Chard (1974, p. 153).

[7] See especially Chen Ge (1989); also (1981; 1987; 1990); Cong Dexin & Chen Ge (1991); Sun Binggen & Chen Ge (1987; 1988); Zhang Ping a.o. (1989); Zhang Yuzhong (1985); Debaine-Francfort (1989, esp. pp. 192, 194, 196-7, 198, 201, 206-7).

[8] Chen Ge (1989, p. 426-427).

[9] Pu Chaofu (1981); Pu Chaofu & Zhao Jianlong (1984); cf. Chen Ge (1989, p. 431).

[10] Rudenko (1970, pp. 314, 315, 317, 318, 319, 321, 323, 326, 327).

[11] Rudenko (1970, p. 207).

[12] Chard (1974, p. 94).

[13] Chard (1961, p. 85, item 21, no. RUL-165). I am grateful to Prof. Sarah M. Nelson for this reference. Okladnikov (1965, pp. 184-142) discusses the Shell Mound culture in detail, but does not mention early iron artefacts. Murakami Kyo@to@ (1991) mentions the iron artefacts of this culture, but does not take them seriously.

[14] Yoon (1984, pp. 35-46); Taylor (1989, pp. 422, 427; 1990, pp. 213-15); Barnes (1993, p. 214); Nelson (1993, pp. 172-4); Kim (1978, pp. 138-14).

[15] (1) Two bronze-iron weapons of the early Chou period (Gettens et al., 1971), believed to come from the a single tomb excavated in 1931 somewhere in the vicinity of Anyang, Henan. Analysis indicates that the iron parts of both contain significant amounts of nickel and cobalt. The distribution of nickel and cobalt in the microstructure of one indicates a Widmanstätten structure distorted by heating to a temperature above 600deg. C for a few minutes.

(2) A bronze-iron axehead from a late Shang city-site at Taixicun in Gaocheng County, Hebei (Tang Yunming & Liu Shishu, 1973, pl. 1; Anon., 1977; Tang Yunming, 1979; 1985). Analysis shows that the iron part contains significant amounts of nickel and cobalt, and their distribution in the microstructure suggests a Widmanstätten structure which has been severely distorted by hot forging (Li Chung, 1979).

(3) Bronze-iron axehead found in a Shang-period grave excavated at Liujiahe in Pinggu County, Beijing Municipality (Figure 2; Yuan Jinjing & Zhang Xiande, 1977, pl. 1.1; cf. Anon., 1990, pp. 37-9). The iron part contains a significant amount of nickel, and the distribution of nickel in the microstructure is consistent with that in a Widmanstätten structure severely distorted by hot working (Zhang Xiande & Zhang Xianlu, 1990).

[16] Anon. (1992, pp. 13-17); Zhong Shaoyi (1993).

[17] `The microstructure and the existence of elongated but cracked inclusions in the rusted areas indicate that these two artefacts are likely to be fabricated of man-made iron, further study is in progress.' Han Rubin et al. (1994).

[18] Lin Shou-chin (1962); Lin Shoujin (1959; 1961; 1978); Li Xueqin (1985, pp. 80-84); Anon. (1984, pp. 283-5); Anon. (1991, p. 343).

[19] E.g. Jenny F. So in Fong (1980, p. 252); note especially the mirror decorated with tigers and a horse, Lin Shoujin (1959, p. 27, fig. 21, pl. 40.2); Lin Shou-chin (1962, p. 11).

[20] Excavation report, Tian Renxiao (1993). Studies, Li Xueqin (1993); Zhang Tian'en (1993).

[21] Bai Chongbin (1994).

[22] Important studies include Karlgren (1945); Chen Zhenzhong (1985); Li Weiming (1988); Chernykh (1992, pp. 268-70); Wu En (1978); Liu Yiman (1993).

[23] Chernykh (1992, p. 269), who however also notes that the Russian scholar who has carried out the most detailed investigation of the problem, N. L. Chlenova, suggests the opposite: that the design originated in China.

[24] Excavation report Liu Dezhen & Zhu Jiantang (1981).

[25] Chen Ping (1984a, p. 60).

[26] See e.g. Tang Jigen (1993, p. 558); von Falkenhausen (1994, pp. 104-5). Note however that many of the artefacts listed by these authors are insufficiently documented and rather uncertainly dated.

[27] Tomb M10 at Xiasi in Xichuan county, Henan, artefact no. M10:33. Excavation report Anon. (1991, pp. 292, 347); cf. Wagner (1993, pp. 90-91).

[28] Bai Chongbin (1994). The author does not, unfortunately, give the artefact number, so we cannot be sure which sword was examined. Probably it was the one which in its present state is least presentable in a museum, and that is probably M2:3.

[29] Guangming ribao (`Guangming Daily'), 1986.5.15: 4; reproduced in Wagner (1993, p. 93, fig. 2.41).

[30] In English: Yi Xu (1986); Su Minsheng (1987); Han Wei (1987); Anon. (1986a); Anon. (1986b); Xinhua News Agency news bulletin (Hong Kong), 3, 5, 12, & 23 May 1986. In Chinese: Guangming ribao (`Guangming Daily'), 28 April 1986, 1; 2 May 1986, 1; 3 May 1986, 1; 4 May 1986, 1; 15 May 1986, 4; 24 May 1986, 1; 13 July 1986, 3; 6 August 1986, 1; Renmin ribao (`People`s daily'), 3 May 1986, 3; 9 May 1986, 3; 25 May 1986, 3; 16 September 1986, 3. Discussion, Wang Hui (1989, pp. 20-21); Wagner (1993, pp. 91-4).

[31] E.g. Anon. (1982, pp. 73, 113).

[32] Barnard & Sato@ (1975, p. 67); Wagner (1993, pp. 145-6).

[33] Wagner (1993, pp. 81-5).

[34] Excavation report Anon. (1984); discussion Wagner (1993, pp. 85-86, 152-7). Note also a later excavation of 73 more graves at Yutaishan, Chen Fengxin (1990).

[35] Wagner (1993, p. 86).

[36] Li Zhaohua (1990, pp. 17-18, 22-3).

[37] On the ancient state of Wu see especially Wagner (1993, ch. 3).

[38] Two `iron artefacts' are reported very briefly from Wu graves in Wu County, Jiangsu, which are believed to be of Spring and Autumn period, but more details will be needed before this find can be taken seriously. Zou Houben (1984).

[39] Cf. Wagner (1993, pp. 83-5).

[40] This begs a number of technical questions raised by my friend Paul Craddock (1994, p. 887). The fact to be emphasised is that iron could be produced in a blast furnace of the same size and shape as the ancient copper-smelting furnaces, as traditional Chinese blast furnaces of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries demonstrate. The exact development route from copper to iron production would no doubt have been less straightforward than I suggested, but it would certainly have been possible.

[41] Cf. Wagner (1993, p. 146).

[42] Johannsen (1910; 1913).

[43] E.g. Percy (1864, p. 326).