Campus & Community

Chinese salt evidence spared from flood

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Site revealed earliest salt manufacting in China

American and Chinese researchers digging at an imperiled site of ancient salt production found the earliest known evidence of salt manufacturing in China.

Salt manufacturing is regarded as an important step in the development of complex societies because its trade not only spurred economic activity, it also encouraged communication along trade routes, prompted ethnic diversification in cooking, and opened new regions to settlement.

Archaeologists found evidence of large-scale salt production dating to the first millennium B.C. at a site called Zhongba, on the Yangtze River northeast of Chongquing. The site, upstream of the enormous Three Gorges Dam project, flooded in 2004 after excavation was complete and is now under the waters of the dam’s manmade lake.

“It’s very satisfying to have contributed to the work going on there,” said Rowan Flad, assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard who was the lead author of a paper detailing the research. “It’s an important area where a lot of evidence is now lost, or at least very hard to access.”

Flad said the project not only uncovered new evidence of early Chinese salt production, but also pioneered new chemical methods through which researchers can confirm a site has been used to produce salt. Because salt so easily dissolves and washes away, confirmation of salt production at a site where it is suspected is difficult, Flad said. These chemical methods can help archaeologists further explore sites where salt production has been identified through pottery remains and other archeological evidence.

Flad’s research was conducted along with colleagues from the University of Science and Technology of China, the National Taiwan University, the University of California, Los Angeles, the Sichuan Provincial Institute of Archaeology, and Peking University. It was published in the Aug. 30 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Though far from the ocean, Zhongba is located in a region that is well known for its salt production. The area is believed to have been the site of an ancient sea that, when it dried up, left enormous deposits of subterranean salt that mingles with ground water and comes to the surface as a briny solution.