Iron decarburisation techniques in the eastern Guanzhong Plain, China, during Late Warring States period: an investigation based on slag inclusion analyses

  • Yaxiong Liu
  • Marcos Martinón-Torres
  • Jianli Chen
  • Weigang Sun
  • Kunlong ChenEmail author
Original Paper


Iron production in the Central Plains area of China has been largely based on cast iron smelting since ca. fifth century BC, with different techniques developed in the following Warring States period and Han dynasty to convert this material into malleable soft iron. Whilst there is a broad consensus about the evolution of technological traditions in the Early Iron Age, the methodologies employed for differentiating artefacts derived from different iron smelting and decarburisation methods have been variable and not sufficiently conclusive. Taking advantage of renewed analytical approaches and archaeological evidence recovered in recent years, this paper summarises our current understanding of the decarburisation techniques employed in Early Iron Age China and sheds new light on this subject through the analysis of archaeological artefacts from two civilian cemeteries in the eastern part of the Guanzhong Plain (Shaanxi), dated to the third century BC. The analytical results indicate that both solid-state and liquid-state decarburisation were employed for soft iron production in this area during the Late Warring States period. The methodology employed in this paper, based on slag inclusion analysis, also provides a more systematic approach to differentiating soft iron production techniques in future archaeometallurgical research in China.


Archaeometallurgy Decarburisation Chaogang Slag inclusions Warring States period 



We are very grateful to the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology for all the help and facilities that made this research possible, especially the effort and support from the staff including Zhouyong Sun, Anding Shao, Lianjian Yue and Jianxi Li. We are also indebted to Rubin Han, Yanxiang Li and Xiuhui Li from the Institute of Historical Metallurgy and Materials, USTB, for their kind support and advice. We also want to express our gratitude to colleagues at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, including Michael Charlton, Thilo Rehren, Yijie Zhuang, Tom Gregory, Agnese Benzonelli, Jonathan Wood, Hayley Simon and Ole Nordland.

Funding information

This research received funding from the National Social Science Fund of China (18BKG011). Yaxiong Liu’s research was funded by a China Scholarship Council (CSC) for his PhD research at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. The paper was facilitated by a research visit from Jianli Chen to Marcos Martinón-Torres, funded through a fellowship by the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UCL Institute of ArchaeologyLondonUK
  2. 2.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  3. 3.School of Archaeology and MuseologyPeking UniversityBeijingChina
  4. 4.Shaanxi Provincial Institute of ArchaeologyXi’anChina
  5. 5.Institute of Historical Metallurgy and MaterialsUniversity of Science and Technology BeijingBeijingChina

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