Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

Art History and Archaeology


English (en)

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Tristram Kidder


The Majiayao Culture: ca. 5300-4000 BP) is famous for its stunning painted pottery vessels. First discovered in the 1920s in northwestern China, these Neolithic painted pottery vessels have become one of the most popular icons used to depict the rich material culture of ancient China. Today, many museums throughout the world hold Majiayao painted pottery vessels in their collections. We know much about the pottery, but research on the associated Majiayao Culture has been limited to cultural histories that emphasize chronology and trait-list classification. These approaches present the Majiayao Culture as static and simplify the social and economic complexity of the people who composed this society. Although scholars commonly assume that Majiayao painted pottery vessels were made by specialized craftspeople, the social and economic processes behind the production of these vessels have long been overlooked. Materials discussed in this dissertation include firsthand attribute and physicochemical analyses of hundreds of ceramic vessels and samples selected from multiple sites in Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces. These data are supplemented with settlement pattern and mortuary analyses of thousands of published sites and burials. By synthesizing these data, this study illustrates a positive correlation between regional density of settlement distribution, intensification of pottery production, and degree of social inequality in each phase during the Majiayao Cultural period. Rather than showing a simple linear process of social complexity, however, there are distinct regional variations in each phase and significant regional fluctuations over time. Results of this study demonstrate economic and social patterns related to Majiayao ceramics were far more complex than we have previously thought. Specifically, intensive ceramic production among these Neolithic agricultural communities was primarily driven by the increasing demand to offer large quantities of painted pottery vessels at funerals. These Neolithic communities fulfilled the increasing demand for painted pottery vessels in mortuary practices by sacrificing vessel quality to promote production efficiency. When the demand for vessel quantity reached its peak, no products were made with the skill and care comparable to the most high-quality vessels dated to earlier phases. Further, the great demand also encouraged the development of inter-regional exchange involving painted pottery vessels. Certain production groups in the core area of site distribution in each phase were able to make relatively high quality vessels and successfully increased their output to best meet the needs of both internal and external consumers. Therefore, I argue that the distribution and consumption of these craft goods was not limited by kin organization. I emphasized these vessels were marketable objects--commodities. The way these craft goods moved from the hands of potters to the consumers was associated with complicated social and economic interaction/exchange, about which we still have limited understanding. The development of social hierarchy in this region is indicated by the disparity of painted vessels unearthed from graves. The preference for painted storage jars may relate to the development of agriculture in this region. These vessels seem to be used as a symbol of wealth. However, these craft goods were generally available for most social members of different ranks. Exchange of goods also led to an exchange of cultural and social experiences. Diverse social values might have been delivered and structured through the circulation of Majiayao painted pottery vessels among the living and between the living and the dead. Patterns identified in this study shed new insights into conceptualizing the dynamic social and economic relationships among Neolithic village-scale communities.


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