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Shu Masks (ca. 1050 BC) gold mask in foreground, bronze head in back

Here is a 3000 year old gold mask discovered in the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdu (which are located in Sichuan (Szechuan)) in Southwest China. The mask was not made for humans but was meant to be worn by a bronze head which was also one of the numerous items deliberately interred in the pits by the Shu people back during the time of the Shang Dynasty. Although the Shang Dynasty is sometimes known as China’s first dynasty and is a time when the first definitive Chinese writings emerged (along with many of the typical hallmarks of Han civilization), the Shu kingdom was not part of the Shang civilization centered in Anyang (as explained by this nebulous yet informative map).

Uh, so who were the Shu people and why were they making these gorgeous stylized heads out of gold and bronze only to bury them among burnt offerings? Well that is a really good question which lacks a really good answer (although analogous instances of buried offerings and treasure in other cultures probably prove instructive). Ferrebeekeeper has blogged about the Shu society and artworks before, and this newly discovered gold mask does not add much to that previous account…except for beauty and wonder. Those will have to suffice until somebody digs up a more definitive answer!

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Boa people (AKA Baboa, Bwa, Ababua) live in the northern savannah region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, as in the past, the majority of Boa make a living by hunting, fishing, and subsistence farming. They speak a Bantu language which shares the same name(s) as their tribe. The Boa once had a reputation as fearsome warriors. When Azande spearmen from southern Sudan invaded Boa lands during the nineteenth century, the Boa successfully repelled the invasion. Subsequently, in 1903 the Boa rebelled against Belgian colonial occupation. Even though they were woefully underequipped and poorly armed, the warriors stood up to the industrialized Belgian forces for seven years. After the rebellion, extensive missionary proselytizing caused the tribe to convert to Christianity.

Boa Mask (carved wood, contemporary)

Boa Mask (carved wood, paint, contemporary)

The Boa are internationally famous for making exquisite wood carvings—particularly eerily beautiful masks and harps with human faces. Original carvings from the pre-Christian era are especially rare and precious. These works usually portray ferocious faces painted with black and white checkerboard patterns. Sadly, the ritual meaning of such masks is now unclear–presumably they were sacred to secret societies or used in the magical/religious ceremonies of warrior cults. Since the original religious cultural context is lost, we are forced to regard these masks solely as art objects—and what spectacular art they are! The mysterious black and white patterns, the feral mouths, and the delicately carved owl-like faces all point to a syncretism between humankind and the wider living world. The animistic masks symbolize not just the spiritual forces of the living animals and plants but also the forces of the night, the river, the weather, the ancestors, and the underworld. To put on such a mask would be to subsume oneself in a vast spiritual totality—to convene with vast forces beyond the purview of a single human life…maybe…or maybe they had an entirely different meaning to their makers. They are a beautiful dark enigma.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

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