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Longtime readers know my fondness for Chinese porcelain. Today’s post features an especially characteristic (and magnificent) style of ceramic art object from the Tang Dynasty–one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization. Founded by the shrewd and intelligent Li family (whom you might remember from this thrilling & violent post), the Tang dynasty lasted from 618 AD-907 AD and was one of the most powerful and prosperous imperial dynasties. At the apogee of the Tang era, China had over 80 million families and exerted near hegemonic control throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Additionally, China served as a cultural model for Japan and Korea, where traditions established a thousand years ago still linger, and it controlled North Korea outright for a generation after winning a war against the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms (and their Japanese allies).
Alien visitors to Earth in the 9thcentury AD would have had no difficulties choosing where to land in order to talk to the most prosperous and advanced people of the time. During this period great medicinal breakthroughs were made, gunpowder was invented, and printing became commonplace. The silk-road trade, which had been created during the Western Han era, grew in importance and magnitude.
During the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD) porcelain camels were first created as grave goods so that merchants could take some of their trade empire with them to the next world (a Buddhist innovation—since previous Chinese potentates were inhumed with actual human and animal sacrifice rather than porcelain stand-ins). The sculptures are modeled in the shape of Bactrian camels, which were the principle mode of transportation through the great southwestern deserts of China. Caravans of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods would set out through the barren wastes headed ultimately for Persia or Europe.
Tang camels are magnificently expressive works of art. Rich tricolor glazes of gold, green and brown were dribbled over the animals and then fired, giving an impression akin to abstract expressionism. Although initially stiff and geometrical, the camels become more lifelike as the Tang dynasty wore on. A new sense of realism pervaded art and the camels are portrayed bellowing to each other or striding through the desert sand. Sometimes the camels include riders like Chinese merchants or Sogdian handlers (equipped with Turkic peaked hats). Tang porcelain camels make it easy to imagine the exotic trade routes of medieval China, where the wealth of the world poured into the middle kingdom across an ocean of sand.
The Moche civilization was a culture which flourished between 100 and 800 AD in northern Peru. Although the Moche had sophisticated agricultural know-how and created elaborate irrigation canals to water their crops, their religious iconographs shows that their hearts belonged to the ocean. This seems to be literally true, their greatest god, Ai Apaec (AKA “the decapitator”) was a horrifying aquatic deity with the arms of a crab or an octopus [I desperately wanted to feature this deity in my Gods of the Underworld Category, but there is not much hard information about him. I'm still tagging this post to that category because...well, just look at him]. Ai Apaec thirsted for human blood and Moche religious ceremonies seem to have been based around human sacrifice. There is substantial archaeological evidence available about the Moche people and their civilization. Several large structures remain extant in the dry climate of Northern Peru. From these temples and graves, we can get a sense of Moche society.
One of the most important Moche sites is the Huaca del Sol (Shrine of the Sun) an adobe brick temple pyramid which is believed to have functioned as a royal palace, royal tombs, and as a temple. Although a substantial portion of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish, who mined it for gold, enough remained to provide archaeologists with a picture of Moche life. Additionally an untouched smaller temple the Huaco del Luna was discovered nearby. The conclusions drawn from studying these compounds were dramatic and horrifying. Archaeology magazine describes two excavations and their grisly discoveries:
Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.
In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.
In 2006, Archaeologists were fortunate enough to discover an extremely well-preserved Moche mummy. Peru This Week outlined the discovery, writing, “The mummy, herself 1,500 years old, is of a woman in her 20s, believed to be an elite member of the Moche tribe. The skeleton of an adolescent girl offered in sacrifice was found with a rope still around its neck. The archaeologists from Peru and the US found the mummy at a site called El Brujo on the north coast near Trujillo. They have dated the mummy to about 450 AD.”
We know a great deal about Moche culture not merely from such rich archaeological finds but also from the vivid artistic skills of the Moche themselves. Not only were they accomplished painters, the Moche were among the world’s great ceramics makers. They crafted vessels which beautifully portrayed deer, birds, mollusks (like the spiny oyster), and other sea creatures. They also made many ceramic art objects portraying war, agriculture, economic activities, and copulation. Many of these Moche ceramics grace the world’s great museums: the expressive grace of the crafting speaks to a society which understood and revered beauty.
The decline and failure of Moche civilization is something of a mystery. The civilization reached an apogee early in the 6th century. Then the great communities of that era appear to have been wiped out by the climate change which affected civilizations worldwide. It seems like the horrible weather events of 535–536 played particular havoc with Moche society. However the Moche survived these upheavels and settlements have been discovered from the middle of the seventh century onward to 800 AD. The character of these latter communities is different from that of the golden age Moche civilizations. Fortifications were much in evidence and the trade and agricultural underpinnings of civilization seem to have been much reduced. Perhaps the Moche were involved in a series of internal battles among varying factions and elites.