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Jade Cong

The Neolithic Revolution began around 10,000 BCE, changing human life by introducing farming and domestication of animals. This led to stable societies and eventually the invention of writing. Liangzhu culture in China created beautiful jade objects called cong, which hold mysterious meanings. Jade Cong, c. 2500 B.C.E., Liangzhu culture, Neolithic period, China (British Museum). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: Where does history begin? Dr. Harris: History begins with writing. That's how we use the term "prehistoric", before writing. Dr. Zucker: But of course we're not satisfied with only knowing literate cultures. We want to push back further and understand the cultures that are preliterate. In order to invent writing, you have to have a society, you have to have some stability. We find that at the end of the neolithic period. Dr. Harris: The neolithic period begins around 10,000 BCE, when we have human beings who can settle down because they've figured out how to domesticate animals, they figured out how to farm, how to raise crops, and that brings some stability. They don't have to live a hunter-gatherer existence anymore. Dr. Zucker: This is known as the Neolithic Revolution. Dr. Harris: And it really was a revolution. It completely changed human beings' way of relating to nature. We could, for the first time, control nature to some degree. Dr. Zucker: This takes place after the end of the last ice age and it may have to do with the environment becoming more hospitable. We see this Neolithic Revolution in areas all over the world that were disassociated from each other. Dr. Harris: Sometime around 3,000, many of those cultures also developed writing. Dr. Zucker: Writing is seen as one of the hallmarks of civilization and we see the development of what we recognize as civilization. That is, early cities, farming techniques, writing, developing in the great river valleys around the world. Most famously, in Egypt, in Mesopotamia, in the Indus Valley, and in China. Dr. Harris: There are several areas in China that had sophisticated neolithic culture. One in particular is called Liangzhu. This culture developed around what is today Shanghai and Yangzi River. Dr. Zucker: Right at the delta of the Yangzi River. Dr. Harris: Just like Egypt developed right around the delta of the Nile and ancient Mesopotamia developed between the Tigris and Euphrates River. It made sense. These were places where you could irrigate crops. Dr. Zucker: In fact, the Liangzhu people seemed to have become expert rice growers and were able to create a surplus, which allowed them not to worry about eating, not to worry about feeding themselves. It allowed at least certain elements of society to begin to develop in more sophisticated ways. Dr. Harris: Liangzhu culture was especially known for producing beautiful jade objects, specifically something that we call cong. Square, hollow tubes that are decorated with lines and sometimes circles that represent faces. Some of them are short and some of them seem to be stacks that are quite tall and we're looking, actually, at several examples here at the British Museum. Dr. Zucker: These were found in graves. Sometimes there were many cong in graves. There were also objects called bi. These are round disks, also with holes in the center. We have no idea what any of this means. This is a culture where we have found no traces of writing. It's possible that they were preliterate or it's possible that they wrote on a material that didn't survive, but the result is all of the ideas that surround these objects are theories. Dr. Harris: Because they clearly represent faces, whether they're monster faces or animal faces or human faces, this clearly meant something. Dr. Zucker: And there's a great degree of regularity and specificity. Now this jade is true jade, or nephrite, and it is extremely hard. This culture did not have tools that were harder than this nephrite. That is, they couldn't carve it. Dr. Harris: You can't incise into it. You can't take a knife and cut into it. It's just too hard. Dr. Zucker: You can't even really scratch it. So when you look at these objects that are so precise, it's almost impossible to imagine that they were produced by rubbing sand. Dr. Harris: Some of the lines are very, very fine and run parallel to each other. It's important to think about the care with which these objects are made. Dr. Zucker: They are clearly symbols. There's a uniformity, there's an intentionality, there's a clarity, and there is tremendous effort. Though we don't speak this language, we recognize it as the product of a human mind. Dr. Harris: A human mind that was trying to say something about power, perhaps, about our relationship to nature, about the spiritual world, about what happens after death. The kinds of questions that human beings ask all the time still. Their verticality, the repetition of these parallel lines, it's hard not to think about these in relationship to issues of power. Dr. Zucker: Some scholars have suggested that the rectilinear quality of the cong is a symbol for Earth. That the round interior is a symbol of the heavens, of the sky, of the sun. These are symbols that develop later in China and it's very seductive to link this neolithic culture with later bronze age cultures. Dr. Harris: To read that definition back into time, it's definitely tempting. Dr. Zucker: It is possible that this is the origin of those symbols, but we can't really know. (jazz music)