"Figurines in Ancient China: From Prehistory to the First Emperor" Sascha Priewe

Last Thursday we went to the British Museum to go to a talk about Chinese figurines (and we'd hoped to go to another talk later the same day but it was sold out). In this talk Sascha Priewe (a curator at the British Museum) was talking about traditions of figurine making in ancient China and how this did (or didn't) lead to the First Emperor's terracotta army. He started by talking briefly about the Ice Age Art exhibition that had been in the British Museum last year (post). This had several examples of small figurines made in Europe more than 10,000 years ago, and you can trace the development and traditions of these figures (again in Europe and also in the Middle East) through the intervening time. This tradition eventually leads to things like Greek statues. However in China it seems (at least from a Western perspective) that the terracotta army buried with the First Emperor appears almost from nowhere in the 200s BC. So his talk was exploring whether or not this was actually the case, and what evidence there is for figurines before these notable (and large and numerous) examples.

The bulk of his talk was an overview of Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology in China, looking at sites where 3D figures have been found. There is a tradition of female figurines found in the northern part of the country during the Neolithic - that may be reminiscent of the earlier European female figurines. But he stressed that this could be an artifact of it being the same people discussing them rather than inherent to the figures. Also during the Neolithic there is a tradition of making phallus models, this is in a different geographical area - the Yellow River valley, if I remember correctly. There's no indication that these are parts of whole body representations - instead they appear to've been created as just a phallus. A little later in (I think) the same area of the country you also find what look like pot lids with a modelled human head on them. Again there isn't any indication that these are broken off a bigger statue - they appear to be complete as they are. Priewe then talked a bit about the Bronze Age artifacts. There are some developments of art in the round - like the bronze funerary vessels - but in many ways these seem to be 2D art wrapped around a 3D object rather than inherently 3D. While there are some representations of animals during this period (in some places) there are still not large numbers of human figurines.

So the First Emperor's terracotta army does actually appear to've been the start of this tradition in Chinese art. Priewe next turned his attention to where it might've come from if not growing out of previous traditions. One suggestion, although he didn't seem to think it was terribly plausible for the sole reason, was that the First Emperor and/or his immediate predecessors in the Qin culture had learnt of Greek statuary via trade routes across to the area of modern Afghanistan (which would put them in contact with Alexander the Great's Hellenic empire). His preferred explanation is that the terracotta figures were reflecting a growing shift in funerary beliefs. In the Qin culture immediately before the First Emperor there are indications of human sacrifices buried with leaders. Priewe said that he thinks the terracotta army are a shift from burying your servants to take them with you (which was a recentish development), to burying symbolic figures of your army and your servants. A more cost effective way of ensuring you had the proper entourage in the afterlife than killing a whole lot of trained soldiers etc.

Priewe finished the talk by moving forward in time from the First Emperor showing how this tradition of providing for the afterlife via symbolic figurines and models continued and even extends to the modern day. So he showed us some of the Han dynasty tomb goods (that were on display in Cambridge a while ago (post)) including the toilet for the use of the deceased ... He also talked about the Tang Dynasty figurines a bit. And he finished up by noting that in modern Chinese funerals people will burn model houses and money, and even viagra, so that the deceased can take these things with them into the afterlife.

At the beginning of the talk I was a bit worried that it was either going to be too academic or too disorganised to follow easily. But once he got going it was an interesting talk :)

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