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Coal-fuelled crucible lead-silver smelting in 12th-13th century China: A technological innovation in the age of deforestation

Liu, S; Rehren, T; Qin, D; Chen, J; Zhou, W; Martinón-Torres, M; Huang, X; (2019) Coal-fuelled crucible lead-silver smelting in 12th-13th century China: A technological innovation in the age of deforestation. Journal of Archaeological Science , 104 pp. 75-84. 10.1016/j.jas.2019.01.004. Green open access

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Abstract

Silver was an important metal in the economy of imperial China. However, until now, research on silver production technology in its social-economic and environmental contexts has been limited. Here we present a unique silver-lead production site in Hebei province, north China, dated between the 12th and 13th century AD, yielding vast numbers of slag-filled tubular crucibles and coal-ash slag chunks. Microstructural and chemical analysis reveals the crucibles were manufactured from refractory clays and that the slag inside contains lead-silver particles, un-reacted ore and numerous fragments of metallic iron. These finds indicate that the crucibles were used for smelting argentiferous sulphidic lead ores, which were reduced to metal by desulphurization using metallic iron. Mineral coal was employed to fuel this process from outside the crucibles. The use of mineral coal and externally-fired crucibles for smelting was an important technological innovation, but not one that could be adopted by all industries. We argue that it was most likely associated with rampant deforestation and the fuel crisis historically documented for the early second millennium in northern China. Contrary to received wisdom, this study demonstrates that the early adoption of coal was not as widespread as typically assumed, as it required a range of technological innovations. Crucible smelting, as one of the solutions, was embraced by lead-silver smelters, while most iron smelters in this period still persisted with the charcoal-fired furnace smelting tradition.

Type: Article
Title: Coal-fuelled crucible lead-silver smelting in 12th-13th century China: A technological innovation in the age of deforestation
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2019.01.004
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2019.01.004
Language: English
Additional information: This version is the author accepted manuscript. For information on re-use, please refer to the publisher’s terms and conditions.
Keywords: Imperial China, Coal, Crucible, Silver smelting, Deforestation, Innovation
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Institute of Archaeology
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Institute of Archaeology > Institute of Archaeology Gordon Square
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10071715
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