With a Grain of Salt: Specialization and the Social Construction of Value in Ancient China

Gold, Gucci handbags, a Malibu beach house – all are examples of what we value as a society. Ever step back and wonder, rules of economics aside, what the social reasons are for ascribing such value to these objects in the first place? What is the place of these items in the wider context of our modern social rituals? Join our host Dr. Schuldenrein and special guest Dr. Rowan Flad, who looks for the answer at an ancient salt production site in the eastern Sichuan Basin of China. It turns out that this narrow industry has much to tell us about how effective the standard models of economic anthropology are in understanding specialization at the emergence of complex societies. Explore the significance of this and other specialized industries in a broader economic and social context and learn how specialized craft production, ritual activity such as divination, and the social construction of value in ancient China were all closely intertwined.

DSC_3310Rowan Flad (b. 10.27.1972) is a Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University.  His research is currently focused on the emergence and development of complex society during the late Neolithic period and the Bronze Age in China. This research incorporates interests in diachronic change in production processes, the intersection between ritual activity and production, the role of animals in early Chinese society – particularly their use in sacrifice and divination, and the processes involved in social change in general. Recently he has conducted excavations at a salt production site in the eastern Sichuan Basin and archaeological survey in the Chengdu Plain focusing on prehistoric settlement patterns and social evolution in that region. New research is being planned focusing on technological change along the proto-Silk Road in Northwest China (Gansu) during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age.


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