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Keywords:

  • Three Gorges;
  • specialization;
  • salt production;
  • context;
  • value

Excavations at a salt-production site named Zhongba in the Three Gorges region of China document a complex system of intersecting activities that changed gradually over a long period of time. As the salt production became much larger in scale during the Bronze Age, the context of this production shifted from one for which there is no archaeological evidence for attachment between producers and those who control the products to a situation in which the exchange of salt to other regions seems to have been controlled, or at least directed, by an emergent elite whose authority was based in part on divinatory ability and the control of ritual knowledge. This study examines the concept of context in relation to the organization of salt production at this site and argues that multiple lines of evidence must be considered if we are to avoid simplified assumptions concerning the nature of products and the production processes through which they are made.