Monday June 18, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Northern China, a century ago, was a cipher to outsiders.

In 1908, an American adventurer, 31-year-old Robert Sterling Clark, organized an expedition to unravel at least some of the mystery of that part of the world. Clark, the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and several other explorers, covered about 2,000 miles, primarily on horse and mule, in the course of their travels through that part of the world

The team made a detailed map of the area and collected animal and plant specimens, many of which are now extinct.

An extensive exhibition centered around that century-old expedition opened this weekend at the Clark Art Institute.

On Sunday, as part of the exhibit, Annette Juliano of Rutgers University, the guest curator of the collection, spoke about several of the architectural discoveries unearthed by that exploration. Juliano's lecture attracted about 300 people.

Clark Institute deputy director Thomas J. Loughman noted that the archeological treasures on exhibit "veers from the usual path" taken by the Clark, which traditionally has focused on Sterling Clark's art collection.

But the 1908 expedition was financed and carried out by Clark, and has uncovered a wealth of information about the area, including "many objects seen for the first time anywhere," he said.

"For a long time, we didn't realize how important this expedition was to Sterling Clark, and to China," said institute director Michael Conforti.

On Sunday, Juliano led an audience through the tombs of ancient Chinese big shots, including a unique sarcophagus for a 6th century Chinese official, Song Shaozu. That structure is in the shape of a wooden house.

It is unique, said Juliano, because Chinese burial sites of the time laid officials to rest in large tombs. The tombs were large rooms, in which were placed jewelry, clothing and everything the Chinese believed one would need to survive in the next world. Painted on the walls were life-sized representations of wives, soldiers, servants and musicians.

Walking into those tombs," she said, "you have the feeling of being among a crowd."

[In Chinese philosophy], "the world of the dead mirrored the world of the living," she said.

The sarcophagus of Song Shaozu, "is a house within a house," she said.

In addition, she said, the stones of which the sarcophagus are composed is sandstone carved to look like wooden beams, which is, she said, a very unusual way to bury someone of that era.

Inside the "house" is a stone slab on which the ruler was laid, complete with a stone pillow.

Juliano noted that in her extensive studies of China, she has not come across a tomb of like construction.

Juliano said there was one other interesting statistic that researchers rarely uncover: Among Song Shaozu's papers is a report of the length of time taken to construct the sarcophagus: 50 days, using a total of 60 masons.

"That's a very rare statistic, one we almost never see," she said.

The exhibit, which includes many other artifacts from the 4th through 6th centuries, will be at the Clark until Oct. 21.

To reach Derek Gentile:
dgentile@berkshireeagle.com,
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On Twitter: @DerekGentile