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Introduction to the archaeometallurgy of iron
Donald B. Wagner

No bloomeries in China?


Han-dynasty bloomery in Guangxi

Photo of a ‘bowl-furnace’ bloomery excavated in Pingnan County, Guangxi 广西平南. Reproduced from Huang Quansheng & Li Yanxiang 208: 138, Figure 2.

Diagram of a ‘bowl-furnace’ bloomery excavated in Pingnan County, Guangxi 广西平南. Reproduced from Li Yingfu 2014: 587, Figure 1.

摘要:广西平南“ 碗式” 炼炉与我国“ 碗式” 炼炉的起源本文在讨论广西平南六陈镇汉代冶铁遗址群“ 碗式” 炼炉的炉形、性质、冶铁生成物及冶炼技术特点的基础上, 提出中国广西的“ 碗式” 炼炉的起源与世界其他地区“碗式” 炼炉的起源途径相同, 是西亚地区“碗式”炼炉对外扩散的结果, 其传播线路是沿印度洋经由西亚、南亚、东南亚传入。

Abstract: Based on the discussion on the shape, nature, iron-smelting products and technical characteristics of the "bowl furnaces" of the iron-smelting remains of the Han Dynasty at Liuchen Town in Pingnan County, Guangxi, this paper put forward the issue of the origin of the "bowl furnaces" in China, and referring to the ''bowl furnaces" found in West Asia, South Asia, Europe and Africa and their smelting technical traditions, this paper pointed out that the "bowl furnaces" in China had the same origin with that of the other regions of the world, which was the result of the far and wide diffusion of the "bowl furnace" of the West Asia, and its introduction route might be from West Asia via South Asia and Southeast Asia along the Indian Ocean.

In China the situation was very different from that in Europe. We must assume that the earliest iron in China was produced in bloomeries, but no early bloomeries have been found by Chinese archaeologists. The earliest reported bloomeries in China are from the early Western Han period in Guangxi Province. It is generally believed that these represent a separate tradition from the iron technology of north China, possibly a late introduction from South or Southeast Asia. Iron was produced in blast furnaces in China at least from the 3rd century BCE, probably much earlier.

From the European story we should expect that bloomery iron smelting was practised in China for many centuries in parallel with blast-furnace smelting. Why do we have no archaeological evidence of this? Several possible reasons can be suggested. First, archaeologists may not recognize the remains of bloomeries when they see them. For example, in the excavations at the Tianma–Qucun 天马–曲村 site in Houma, Shanxi, 1980–89, some curious features, called shaozao 烧灶 in the final report, might in fact be the remains of bloomeries (Zou Heng 2000: 44, 166; feature nos. J7T12Z1, J7T32Z2, J7T1085Z3).

Another suggestion is that the famous Han state monopoly on iron production, introduced in 117 BCE, was so effectively enforced that bloomery smelting died out completely. Later, when iron production was again free, the technique had been forgotten, and the needs of poor and isolated localities led to the development of smaller blast furnaces, which are less efficient than the larger ones, but appropriate for small-scale production.

A final suggestion which must be taken seriously is that the remains of bloomeries have been destroyed by later blast-furnace ironworks. Bloomeries produce great quantities of slag, and because of the ore-inefficiency of the process this slag contains a large percentage of iron, generally as iron silicate. This slag is in effect a rich ore which is easily smelted in a blast furnace. It is heavy and therefore easily distinguished from blast-furnace slag. In the last two millennia and more there have been numerous opportunities for iron producers to find the earlier slag heaps and ‘mine’ them for use in their blast furnaces, in the process destroying whatever might have been left of the original bloomeries. In Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, remains of many early bloomery ironworks have been destroyed in this way (Pleiner 2000: 43, 51, 267).


Li Yingfu 李映福. 2014. ‘Guangxi Pingnan “wanshi” lianlu yu woguo “wanshi” lianlu de qiyuan’ 广西平南“碗式” 炼炉与我国“碗式”炼炉的起源 (“Bowl-shaped” smelting furnaces excavated in Pingnan County, Guangxi, and the origin of “bowl-shaped” smelting furnaces in China). Kaogu 考古 2014.6: 64–77. 

Pleiner, Radomír. 2000. Iron in archaeology: The European bloomery smelters. Praha: Archeologický Ústav Avčr.

Zou Heng (chief ed.) (2000) 鄒衡. Tianma–Qucun 1980–1989 天馬–曲村 1980–1989 (Excavations 1980–89 at Tianma and Qucun in Quwo and Yicheng Counties, Shanxi). By the Shang–Zhou Group, Archaeology Department, Peking University 北京大學考古學系商周組 and Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology 山西省考古研究所. 4 vols., Kexue Chubanshe, Beijing, 2000. English summary, tr. by K. C. Chang, vol. 3, pp. 1181–3.

Last edited by DBW 27 February 2023