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Tomb Treasures

New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty
Feb 17 —
May 28, 2017

In Lee Gallery, intimate items — such as toiletries, mirrors, basins, incense burners and even phalluses — invite you into the interior spaces of the court to explore its mystique. Highlights include:

Forget Me Not Belt Hook

Set of belt buckles
Set of belt buckles, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Silver. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.17. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.
Belt hooks, typically used to fasten belts or carry small items at the waist, were very popular during the Han dynasty. This belt hook is particularly noteworthy in that it holds a romantic secret: The inscriptions on the inside face of each half of the hook, one convex and one concave, bear the same phrase, “forget me not,” and the two can be joined as one to convey the wish for love and loyalty. The occupant of the tomb from which this piece came was a concubine lovingly nicknamed Chunyu Baby (Chunyu Ying'er). There are two possible scenarios for how it came to be in her tomb: She may have prepared the belt hook for the Jiangdu king as a request for his remembrance but never had a chance to present it to him. Alternatively, the two halves may have been reunited at her death, with the king having this token placed in the tomb of his favorite lover.


Toilet model
Toilet model, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. unearthed from the Tomb of the King of Chu, Tuolan Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Earthenware. Xuzhou Museum, EX2017.1.113. Photograph © Xuzhou Museum.
This 2,000-year-old toilet has an advanced toilet design that allowed users to comfortably sit on a set of step stones and rest their backs and arms on the supports. Water could clean the pit and flush the excrement directly into the sewage system. Han noble households had separate rooms for baths and toilets, and similar structures, like this one, were also prepared in tombs for the deceased to use in the afterlife. Outside the palaces, most latrines were still squat-style over a large pit or basin, and many were built above or near a pigsty to collect human excrement for manure. Because the filth and smell often made people sick, latrines were believed to be hiding places for demonic or evil forces.

Cosmetic boxes

Cosmetics box set
Cosmetics box set, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 1st century BCE. unearthed from Dongyang city, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Lacquer. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.112. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.
Han nobles took great care with their appearance. The variety of cosmetic items found in tombs indicates that they applied powders and herbs to make up their faces. Mirrors, brushes and scissors were found, as were lacquerware containers of various sizes, used to store a full set of personal-care tools and accessories.

This set of cosmetics boxes represents a type of household item popular at the time, a large outer box featuring seven small interior boxes in circular or horse-hoof shapes. These lacquerwares are painted with cloud designs and other abstract motifs, and their tops are adorned with silver pieces that create auspicious persimmon patterns.


Phallus, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Bronze. unearthed from Tomb 1, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Bronze. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.12. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.
It is not unusual to find phalluses buried in the tombs of Han-dynasty noblemen. The polished surface of this one indicates that it was not made merely for burial but had been used before interment. The hollow body and the thread holes around the base also suggest that the phallus was designed to actually be used.

Han people were interested in the Daoist arts of the bedchamber and believed that guided intercourse between men and women could help to achieve health and longevity. Because the Han took care to address every need the deceased might have in the afterlife, archaeologists have been able to unearth such intimate items.

Smokeless Lamp

Lamp, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. unearthed from Tomb 1, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Bronze. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.14. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.
Different styles of oil lamps emerged during this era, enabling members of the court to enjoy banquets and music late into the evening. The innovative technologies and superb craftsmanship of these new lamps changed the fabric of life at court by extending the period of activity into hours of darkness and allowing a culture of entertainment to flourish.

The ingenious design of this oil lamp made it easy to use and smoke-free. The two semicircular panels of its midsection could be slid around to control the amount of illumination, while the tray could be turned to change the direction of light. The lid of the lamp has two curved tubes connecting back to its body, designed so that smoke would be collected and absorbed by water in the reservoir at the bottom of the lamp. These tubes also distributed heat and warmed the hands and air, a design that worked well for interior use during long winter nights.

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