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Rowan’s research focuses on the emergence and development of complex society during the late Neolithic period and the Bronze Age in China. He has conducted excavations at a salt production site in the eastern Sichuan Basin and has recently completed a regional survey in the Chengdu region focusing on prehistoric settlement patterns and social evolution. New research is focused on the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age in southern Gansu. Current research and writing projects focus on several aspects of social complexity including: specialized production and technology, the anthropology of value, mortuary analysis, archaeological landscapes, interregional interaction, cultural transmission, and animal and plant domestication.

He has published extensively on archaeology in China in many edited volumes and journals, including Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Current Anthropology, The Holocene, Antiquity, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Journal of Field Archaeology, Asian Perspectives, Journal of East Asian Archaeology, Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Kaogu, and Nanfang Minzu Kaogu. He co-edited a book on specialization in the series Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, and is the author of Salt Production and Social Hierarchy in Ancient China: An Archaeological Investigation of Specialization in China’s Three Gorges, published by Cambridge University Press in 2011, and Ancient Central China: Centers and Peripheries Along the Yangzi River, also by Cambridge in 2013. He is currently working on The Chengdu Plain Archaeological Survey – Results from the 2005-2010 Seasons.