What's in a tomb?

Thursday September 6, 2012

How can we know what life was like in China more than 2,000 years ago?

Chinese scholars and officials wrote archives of court records -- but a court record does not tell how Song Shaozu's children or household or community felt when he died, any more than the minutes of a select board meeting will reveal a private grief.

China is vast country, and the control of the Han state was loose, said Dr. Lillian Lan-ying Tseng, associate professor of East Asian art and archaeology at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University.

Soldiers at the frontier, the ruling elite, workers recruited inland, men and women, literate or illiterate -- "they would all have different opinions if we could interview them," she said.

Can a tomb offer a more private record?

The Clark's senior curator, Richard Rand, agreed that a tomb carries artwork made for the people inside it -- it may have paintings inside its walls that its occupants meant no one else to see.

The ancient Chinese men and women in these tombs filled them with artwork to go with the dead into the next world.

Ceramic sculptures called mingqi represented the beings that the people in the tomb hoped to have with them in the next world (and may have had in this one) -- oxen, horses and carts, musicians and guards.

The beautiful things they chose to keep with them in death may suggest how they chose to live.

In 200 B.C., the prince in Tseng's tomb (not an emperor but the son of a local ruler) lay in the earth with jade ornaments. Unlike the mingqi, these ornaments did not show recognizeable figures of people or animals: they wre symbolic.

The Chinese value Jade highly, Tseng said, and until a very modern period they have valued it more highly than gold or other prescious stones. They considered it a natural material, she said. Bronze was a man-made alloy, but jade came in a pure form. So it might symbolize a natural strength and longevity. The clear, young-spring green jade, she added, came later; the prince in the early Han tomb lay surrounded by ornaments in milky white stone.

Tombs could have elements of public ceremony, Tseng said -- the line between public and private could blur for a prince, and his funeral might become a procession with all his grave goods on show -- but tombs may tell many things that are not recorded.

In her early tomb, archaeologists found silverware -- which the ancient Chinese did not use. It may have come from Iran, she said. By the time Song Shaozu died, Iranian traders had a strong hold on the Silk Road trade, and they would keep it for 500 years.

-- Kate Abbott


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