Bloomery iron smelting in the Daye County (Hubei): Technological traditions in Qing China
China is widely accepted as the birthplace and shrine of the blast furnace, with bloomery iron technology largely believed to be scant before the Han Dynasty, and virtually inexistent afterwards. Challenging this traditional picture, this paper presents the material characterisation and reverse engineering of the primary smelting of bloomery iron at five metal production sites, located in close proximity of each other in the Daye County in Hubei Province, China, and in operation during the middle Qing Dynasty. A combination of materials science analyses–optical microscopy, SEM-EDS and WD-XRF–of surface collected technical material such as slags, furnace remains, and ores has demonstrated the established existence of bloomery iron at the core of the Chinese Empire. The five case studies present robust evidence of an overall broadly shared technical procedure based on the smelting of high grade ores in batteries of embanked furnaces, generating abundant slag but a limited metal output. The reconstruction of the various smelting processes in a relatively small region illustrates different technological adaptations to natural resources and socio-technological contexts, which are discussed using conceptual frameworks of rational economy and technological traditions.