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Tomb Treasures

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


While stories of power struggles, political turmoil and land division in the Han empire have been frequently recounted, Tomb Treasures provides new insights into the daily rituals and personal relationships at the Han court — the pleasures of life people loved so dearly they spared no expense bringing them into the beyond.
Objects displayed in the Osher Gallery demonstrate the luxuries, advanced technologies and elaborate decorations that the Han elite enjoyed in their daily lives. Highlights include:

Ritual Bell Set

Bell set
Bell set, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Bells: bronze; stands: lacquer and silver. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.52. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.
Music was a mainstay of courtly celebrations, and a bell set like this one would have been part of an ancient musical ensemble. Consisting of 19 individual bells, this bronze bell set includes special frames adorned with mythical creatures, patterned designs of twin dragons and bi disks with holes. These disks, made of silver, have fine engravings of floating clouds with birds and beasts. The entire ensemble is supported by two bronze stands in the shape of squatting camels. 

From left to right, the bells increase in size and get deeper in pitch. Each bell produces two distinct tones, depending on whether it’s hit at the center or side. This bell set would have been played by at least two performers, one for each rack. 

Wine Thief

Wine vessel with siphoning tube unearthed from Tomb 1 Dayun Mountain Xuyi Jiangsu
Wine vessel with siphoning tube, unearthed from Tomb 1, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu, Western Han period, 2nd century BCE. Gilded bronze. Nanjing Museum, Photograph © Nanjing Museum.
Similar to the “wine thief” siphons still popular at wineries today, this hollow wine vessel was used to serve beverages during banquets. It has two small holes, and the mechanism for drawing and releasing liquid is operated by using the thumb to cover and uncover the top hole. The beverage is first drawn into the vessel through the bottom hole, then withdrawn from its container while covering the top hole, and finally dispensed into a cup by uncovering the hole. This vessel was decorated with inlays of silver and gold, as well as small pieces of precious stones and agate that are now largely missing. 

“Hot Pot” — with the five compartments

Cauldron ding unearthed from Tomb 1 Dayun Mountain Xuyi Jiangsu
Cauldron (ding), unearthed from Tomb 1, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu (Western Han period, 2nd century BCE). Bronze. Nanjing Museum, Photograph © Nanjing Museum.
The ding, a vessel for cooking food and boiling water, has functioned since antiquity as a ritual object to indicate noble status and privilege. This large cauldron was not designed as a ritual vessel, however, but for practical use. The body is composed of five compartments, allowing the user to sample five different broths at the same time without mixing different ingredients and flavors. 

Dancing Figure

Dancer figurine
Dancer figurine, 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, EX2017.1.77. Photograph © Xuzhou Museum.
With her dramatic posture and outstretched arms, the bold design of this figurine captures a dynamic and graceful moment of the “flying swallow” dance. Possibly belonging to the third king of the Chu kingdom, the Tuolan Mountain tomb housed an ensemble of these dancing figurines, allowing us to imagine the spectacle of courtly entertainment. 

Drinking Set for Two People

Set of drinking wares unearthed from Tomb 9 Dayun Mountain Xuyi Jiangsu
Set of drinking wares, unearthed from Tomb 9, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu, Western Han period, 2nd century BCE. Ceramic. Nanjing Museum, Photograph © Nanjing Museum.
Intimate gatherings, such as drinking parties attended by just two or three men, were common among the Han elite, based on scenes depicted in the art of the time. Each individual would probably use a cup and a spoon for soup or wine, as well as a ladle to scoop out the liquid from the basin into his own bowl.

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