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Treasures Along the Silk Roads

Old tomb painting showing a merchant with horses and camels along the Silk Roads. Luotoucheng, Gansu Province, China; circa 221-317 C.E. Courtesy Gaotai County Museum.

Old tomb painting showing a merchant with horses and camels along the Silk Roads. Luotoucheng, Gansu Province, China; circa 221-317 C.E. Courtesy Gaotai County Museum.

Background information about burial objects in ancient China:
As early as the Neolithic period (8th to 2nd millennium BCE), Chinese tombs were furnished with grave goods like pottery, tools, weapons, and even horses and human sacrifices.  Scholars believe that this practice indicated a belief in the afterlife.  By the 5th century BCE, animal and human sacrifices were replaced by clay models while certain luxury items and daily necessities continued to be buried with the deceased.  Many clay models are in the shape of servants, buildings, and other daily necessities.  For archaeologists, the tombs and their burial objects became a sort of time capsule, as they are primary sources of information about daily lives in ancient China.

Slide 1:  Striding cavalry horse
Horses held special importance along the Silk Road, as the work animals of the nomadic people and, as with this figure, as part of a military force.   These animals were vital to maintaining Chinese military strength.  In 2nd century BCE, military expeditions to Central Asia brought stories about the so-called “blood sweating” horses with exceptional stamina and speed.  The quest to possess the best horses was one of the reasons for Chinese military and diplomatic missions to Central Asia.  This bronze figure of a horse was found in a tomb as part of a large procession of model horses, mounted warriors, chariots, and escorts.

Eastern Han dynasty, 2nd century CE        
Height:  36.5 cm
Excavated from a tomb in Gansu province          

What is one adjective to describe the character of the horse?

Where would you like to ride this horse?

Slide 2:  Tomb brick with scenes of animal husbandry
A herder looks after his goats and two oxen on this brick that was excavated from a burial site.  This is one of many bricks from the interior of the tomb that had pictures of daily life painted on them.  

Six dynasties period, c. 220-317            
Clay with pigments
Height: 17 cm; Length: 43.5 cm; thickness; 4.8 cm
Excavated from a tomb in Jiayuguan (Jah-yu-gewan), Gansu province

What did the man call to his animals?

What are two products that came from these animals?

Slide 3:  Cavalryman and horse

This clay figure shows both man and horse covered with armor.  This clay figure was likely shaped in a mold, worked by hand and then placed in a kiln for firing at temperatures between 800 ºC and 1100 ºC before the finished paint.  

Six dynasties period, c. 386-535            
Clay with pigment
Height: 43.5 cm.  Length:  43.8 cm


What were the words this man said to his family before he left?

What are two items the man carried with him?

Slide 4:  Dancing Central Asian figure

The costume of this figure tells us that this is a Sogdian (pronounced Sog-di-en).   Sogdians were people who inhabited an area called Sogdiana, in modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.  They were important merchants on the Silk Roads.  In Chinese courts of the Tang dynasty, the most valued dancers were Sogdians.  Notice the figure’s large nose, which is another visible feature artists used to distinguish a Sogdian from a Chinese.

Tang dynasty (618-906)                    
Height:  13.7 cm
Gansu province

What is the name of the dance this man is performing?

List two reasons for celebration.

Slide 5:  Seated Bodhisattva
Buddhism, one of the world’s oldest belief systems, was transmitted from India through Central Asia and into China by monks traveling with merchants and diplomats along the Silk Road routes.  Monks carried portable images like this one as a visual reminder of the teachings of the Buddha, which centers on compassion and overcoming the sufferings of the world.  This seated Buddhist figure wears a Chinese-styled robe rather than an Indian costume.  The artists in this region consciously adopted Chinese features and adornments in their representations of the Buddha, attesting to a confluence of different cultures and artist traditions.

Six dynasties period, c. 386 - 535                
White smoothsoft stone
Height:  18.9 cm.
Ningxia Autonomous Region                        

Name the sounds of meditation

What would be the Buddha’s wish for the world

Slide 6:  Wall painting of an Apsara
What is left of this wall painting allows us to see that bright, rich colors were used to create the apsaras (pronounced ap-sa-ra), music-making celestial creatures who often accompany Buddhist deities.  This fragment comes from one of the walls of the Maijishan (pronounced My-jee-shan) Caves where hundreds of religious paintings are found.  Artists often depict apsaras with billowing drapery and scarves to indicate that they are in flight.

Six Dynasties period (c. 557-581) to Sui dynasty  (589-618)
Height:  48 cm; width:  40 cm
Cave 78, Maijishan Caves, Gansu province

What does the apsara figures see from their celestial (heavenly) stance?

What is the first line of a song the apsara might be singing?

Slide 7:  Gold Byzantine Coin
This gold coin pictures the Byzantine emperor Justinian I.  In his hand is a globe topped with a cross, signifying that the whole world is subject to him.  The other side of the coin shows an angel holding a cross.  This coin was excavated from the tomb of Tian Hong (pronounced Tee-en Hung) who died in 575 CE.  The discovery of foreign coinage in Chinese tombs demonstrates that they may have been collected as precious objects rather than for their use-for foreign currency would have no intrinsic monetary value outside of the countries of origin on the Silk Roads.

Byzantine, 6th century
Weight: 2.5 g;  diameter 1.65 cm
Tomb of Tian Hong, Guyuan, Ningxia Autonomous Region            

What are two items this coin was used to buy?

What was the job of the last owner of this coin?

Proceed to the last page for an extension exercies.