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Tomb Treasures

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


Han royalty took ancient China’s fascination with jade to the extreme, believing it had the power to protect flesh from decomposing. In life, Han kings used exquisite jade pieces as eating utensils and decorative ornaments; they were eventually buried with an exorbitant amount of the material. Orifices of the body were even blocked with jade to preserve the vital essence within.
On view in Hambrecht Gallery, three stellar examples, among many other works in jade, attest to this “jade worship”: a complete jade suit, a jade coffin and a jade dragon to adorn the coffin. 

Jade Coffin

Coffin, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. unearthed from the Tomb of the King of Chu, Shizi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Jade, wood, and lacquer. Xuzhou Museum, EX2017.1.76. Photograph © Xuzhou Museum.
A king's coffin is more than just a casket: It is a shelter for his corpse and soul in the afterlife. By employing a jade coffin along with a jade suit and other inner and outer coffins, the king's body would receive multiple layers of protection. Considering the rarity of jade coffins, they were probably the most extravagant and highest-quality burial furnishings, used exclusively by high-ranking royalty. 

Believed to be the largest jade coffin found to date, this coffin was reconstructed from about 1,500 jade plaques of various shapes (square, rectangular, triangular, diamond). The unadorned rectangular holes at the lower register of the coffin walls may have been created as gateways for the king’s soul. 

Jade Suit

Jade suit
Jade suit, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.1. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.
Han royal family members were often interred in custom-tailored suits made of jade plaques to protect their bodies in the afterlife. Depending on the body size, a complete suit could comprise up to 2,500 jade pieces in rectangular, triangular, round, half-moon and fan shapes. Sewn in gold, silver or bronze thread to denote the wearer’s status, they resemble a full suit of armor. Because jade suits were major targets of tomb robbers, only a few complete sets of gold-threaded jade suits have been fully reassembled from some 60 royal tombs. This restored jade suit belonged to a queen of the Jiangdu kingdom, who died shortly before the king. 

Soldier Figurines

Set of archer figurines
Set of archer figurines, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. unearthed from the Tomb of the King of Chu, Beidong Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Painted earthenware. Xuzhou Museum, EX2017.1.89.1-.3. Photograph © Xuzhou Museum.
More than two hundred painted figurines were discovered in the niches that lined the long tunnel of the Beidong Mountain tomb. Crafted in various stances, these figurines were elaborately painted with a variety of pigments. From their faces to their shoes, each is decorated with lifelike details, creating the appearance of hundreds of unique individuals. 

Divination board

Divination board
Divination board, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE). unearthed from Tomb 10, Lianying site, Yizheng, Jiangsu. Lacquer. Yizheng Museum, EX2017.1.95. Photograph © Yizheng Museum.
This lacquer divination board would have been consulted before deciding on important life events, such as waging battles or choosing wedding dates. Representing the earth, this board would probably have been used with another board representing heaven to decipher the interplay of the cosmic forces of yin and yang. The black lacquer is marked by red lines and characters that charts complicated cosmology. 

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