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Tomb Artifacts from China's Han Dynasty
(206 BCE to 24 CE)
Artifact NotesCollector's Notes Back to Han Dynasty Gallery

Han Dynasty Tomb Artifacts

Notes by Arabella Decker

The ability to turn soft clay into rigid fired containers, household goods, and other useful tools has been known to the Chinese for at least seven thousand years and the use of bronze for at least four thousand years. These technological feats were not developed by one area's culture only to be lost when war or other cultural upheaval occurred. Remarkable as it may seem when one realizes the destruction and violence that countries often go through in the process of development and unification, China wisely realized that artistry and technological knowledge was of the utmost importance and should be a treasured asset. This meant that individuals with knowledge were able to transmit their expertise and techniques over generations of time which allowed for the refining of these techniques by an evolutionary process.

The depth of ceramic and bronze knowledge within Chinese society can be seen in the grave goods of the Han Dynasty (from 206 BCE to 24 CE). Some examples are shown in this Hidden Treasures show. This exhibit includes practical pottery and a bronze ding (ting) useful for containing fluids or for cooking in the afterlife; a dancing drummer which may have been used for entertainment, or along with the bronze incense burner, for drawing the gods' blessing; a bronze oil lamp for evening light; and a horse and camel for transportation and status: and, lastly, one of the most extraordinary artifacts is the lady of elegance who is dressed so beautifully and has such a demure expression.

Clay will vitrify rendering it rigid and no longer able to be dissoluble in water depending upon its chemical makeup at various temperatures. This sudden change in structure occurs anywhere from eight hundred degrees ( earthenware ) to two thousand three hundred degrees ( high fire porcelain ).

Kilns during the Han dynasty had to be built as tunnels that were bricked up. Caves were often converted for this purpose. Firing the pottery took a long period of time because the fuel to heat such structures was often wood and the fire had to be constantly tended both day and night over a long period of time. Therefore a family or factory system had developed early in Chinese society as evidenced by the artifacts produced.

The earlier Qin dynasty (from 221 to 207 BCE) had developed terracotta casting and firing techniques to an extraordinary art which can be seen in the life size horses, men, and chariots buried with weapons in the Emperor’s grave at Shaanxi Province.

The camel and the horse shown in The Silicon Valley Art Museum's Hidden Treasures Gallery were created utilizing the same casting techniques and then individualized as was done by the Emperors’ artisans in the Qin areas of influence. Though stylistically different, using a humanizing sense of humor in the expression rather than one of intimidation, their purpose was similar. These figures were placed in the grave to serve the occupant in the afterlife. The horse was to represent the sturdy short legged horses of the steppe that could travel all day and then carry a warrior into battle. To the artists eye they were not elegant but rather comical.

Please note the tack indications which are drawn on the horse. The collar and crupper along with the girth, which held the saddle in place, and the raised forelock that was wrapped then as it is often done today on Mongolia steppe. The animal model for this figure probably came from the Korean or Northern region where the Han dynasty had some military outposts. The cultural influence of the Eastern Han was still a force to be reckoned with as late as 300CE.

This figure was made in a series of two piece molds and then assembled. This system would allow many figures to be fabricated in a small courtyard factory system. After the horse was dry, another individual could add the color to accent the individuality of the horse before it would be placed in a kiln to be fired.The Camel was fabricated the same way even though it is an elegant figure, unlike the horse. (The Tang pottery horses and camels of glazed colors often called “butter, egg, and spinach” will be made the same way seven hundred years later. The apparent difference is the highly colored glasslike lead glaze on the surface of the later work and the different lower fired under glaze and colored slip (watery clay) used on these Han pieces.)

Glaze and underpainting were common techniques used for decoration in fired works. The polychrome decoration was applied using a brush with great skill and verve. The range of color includes three different colors of red, plus pink, blue, white, cream, gray, and a dark brown black. These colors were mineral colors found or imported for decorative purposes. Often glaze colors will only be present when trade routes are open and therefore the economic links between areas of glaze manufacture can be dated and discovered.

The cast marks on both the three-dimensional standing horse and elegant camel can still be seen if you look carefully. Over seven pieces were put together in order to complete the standing camel figure and six for the horse. They have air holes to let the gas escape that are large and there the thickness of the casting can be seen to be about a quarter inch thick. One can only assume that a different casting technique was mastered for each section so they would not warp in the firing because of an uneven thickness between the body and the legs of the figures. The attachment system used by these expert fabricators shows the mark of the hand and the efficient use of a single swipe of a finger to hide the joining of two parts.

The cocoon shaped flask has been covered and smoothed into its shape from the two cast halves which were joined down the middle and then augmented by a wheel turned lip and foot. Similarly shaped earthenware pieces are useful for liquid storage, because the process of evaporation through the porous body can cool a liquid, thus the surface configuration is designed to be large enough to eliminate heat even if a stopper is used

The water jar with its beautifully thrown form is commonly seen made even today. The balance and grace of this form, often called a Hu, make for easy control of liquids using either one or two hands. The grace and flow of the slip decoration is still evident on the surface and the potter’s addition of the foot attached after the rest of the jar was made is evidence of a factory system whereby the leather-hard object was stood on its neck and the leather-hard rim foot was attached using slip as a ceramic glue before firing. A red underglaze was used on part of the bottom while large free flowing abstracts were drawn using iron oxide black, buff, and gray.

This Hu was a form that was repeatedly made. Other examples are to be seen that are confusingly similar even down to the decoration although each was handmade. It is a good example of the quality control that the family factory system had in the Western Han spheres of influence.Two of the gems in this Hidden Treasure show are the little lady and the next polychrome jar. They both have extraordinary painting and are beautifully created. The lady has three different colors of red, plus pink, white, gray, buff and black. The piece was cast in a two piece mold and finished beautifully for she was a beauty to adorn the afterlife. The elegant clothing and covered hands show her position within the afterlife household. She is a perpetual beauty to be treasured as a decorative pleasure.

The small jar with the polychrome decoration has all the hues one would expect with one addition – blue. Cobalt blue – the bases of many other glazes to come is applied as an underglaze on this pot. It was a rare import and points out the international trade that existed at this time. Cloth was also in high demand and the upper band in black and gray is a cloth pattern which mimics the silk that made China so famous. The patterns on the main part of the body are beautifully controlled and yet spontaneous forms that would later become water and cloud motifs.The two glazed pots with “glass like” surfaces ( a sharp contrast to the western supplied “low fire” underglazes and slip decoration made with soda that was imported into China along the trade routes) are grain jars. One of these has a “high fire” glaze.

It is like those manufactured in Chekaing and Fukien from the middle of the Han dynasty. These are some of other examples of “high-fire” ware in existence, such as a black and a white and green glazes on rare pieces of ceramics of the Warring States Period (475 to 221 BCE) which proceeded the Han dynasty as well as one example of a glazed pot from a Yin dynasty potter (1766 to 1050 BCE) but this example may have been “from ash falling in error upon the piece during firing.”

This red earthenware Han Hu grain jar was made on a wheel with inscribed decoration, as was the camel’s saddle blanket. The addition of a foot used the same technique as the Hu previously mentioned. But what is noteworthy is the glaze that has been applied to the outside of the jar above and below the small handles and inside the neck. This was a production piece from a kiln that made many similar pieces of pottery. The body of the red earthenware is a terracotta decorated with a feldspathic glaze which meant that a second firing at about 1200 to 1300 degrees had to be done after the grain jar survived the initial firing in order to adhere the glaze to the body of the jar. Though the glaze looks tobacco colored it is called “green” and was one of the three colors of green that were produced during the Han dynasty. One should notice that the body of the piece is dark red (probably caused by the extra heat used to adhere the glaze) for it has typically changed the color of the piece to a dark rich mahogany hue.

The inside of the pot has a glazed section that is a light cream with traces of “green”– a glaze that is similar to the base glaze on celadon ware made on terracotta bisque. The first major production examples of this most sought after glaze, occur during the Han dynasty. One can often tell where a piece is located in a kiln by the firing color on such a piece for the kilns were often tightly packed. (The King of Sweden has a piece of celadon which is made by three vases getting stuck together in a kiln firing.)

The last piece of ceramic that is in this Hidden Treasure show is another Hu, grain jar. This low-fire lead based bright green color is a different green which often retains its hue even after being buried for around two thousand years. This ware has a light colored “silver” section on its body which is caused by the mineral leaching which occurred during its burial. This is a wheel piece that shows the makers finger mark or sharp stylus scribed decoration. Pots of similar type, size, and decoration are to be found from the same period. This means that the kiln production was not only uniform but that such a high status jar with its rare color was a desired object for burial.

The beauty and expertise shown by the wheel work used to create this Hu and the former Yueh are Chinese artistic trademarks. The free form brush work and the incising techniques along with the colored glazes are traditions that will be carried on into future generations Chinese artists and artisans. Therefore we are looking at an evolutionary process not in its infancy but in a formative stage.

The bronze techniques shown in this Hidden Treasure show are metal examples based on patterns of ceramic utensils. The Western Han oil lamp is similar to ceramic pieces used in households of the period. The casting includes a handle as well as a stand. This object, which was filled with oil and had a wick that burned was to be carried by the spirit in the afterworld to light its way from place to place. One can imply two concepts from this fact: one, that an afterlife was to mirror the best of the everyday world, and two, that the spirit of the dead must be treated with respect in order not to interfere with the living.

Expensive products were buried with the dead. These religious concepts are continued even to this day.Bronze is made out of tin and copper mixed and melted at about 1200 to 1300 degrees Fahrenheit. The Chinese ceramics industry of the period was making products in kilns that were getting this hot. The bronze industry was utilizing similar heating controls, often one checks the heat of metal by its color. ( is it red or yellow or white hot?). The crucible was often made from a ceramic material. The bronze liquid would be poured into a mold (probably one made of sand and dung) space which had been formed from the removal of the model made of wax or clay. ( This is an early form of the “lost wax” technique)

Later molds were ceramic or plaster and had intricate patterns which needed more than one piece to be adhered to one another. This was often done by heating and pounding the final product. The pouring technique had to have a pipe to get the bronze into the various pockets of the mold. The pipe is called a sprue. This little lamp still has its sprue on its bottom. You may also notice the color of rust on the bronze. The bronze alloy (mixture) often had impurities in it and these would surface and then oxidize over time making the bronze lighter and lighter in weight.

The Western Han incense burner is in the “mountain” form, a familiar form in ceramic objects of the period. The bird standing on a turtle is attached to the base of the mountain form, the rim of the stand was another piece and the third section, made to be removable was where the smoke of the incense burner escaped. This piece is so constructed that the top seats well in one position, only it is the correct top for the bottom. It is a high status piece that was beautifully finished utilizing decorative motifs that are still in use today.

But the piece that is most extraordinary is the ding or ting ( a covered bowl that was to be placed in coals to heat its contents.) It is an elegant casting of bronze that was about a quarter to an eighth of an inch thick with a stamped incised decoration on its body and lid. It is light as a feather and beautifully constructed. No warping or seizing is evident and all sprue evidence has been chased (filed and sanded). The three legs which stood in the coals would heat the lid as well as the bottom and sides of the ting so a lifting mechanism was used to lift up the lid. There are three decorated rings used for this purpose. The stability of the ting design is apparent for when it is placed on a flat or even an uneven surface it rests solidly. It is truly a form that follows function.

The Silicon Valley Art Museum is grateful that the collectors are willing to share their hidden treasures with the world and wishes to thank those who have been so generous.

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