No Rest for the Leery

If you’ve ever wondered what my game face looks like, you’re in luck, because here it is in full effect. Times in my life when I’ve needed my game face include (but are not limited to): the first time I mistakenly called a Scottish person “British”; the time I couldn’t find a place to sleep in the Czech Republic and had to spend a [mostly terrifying] night in the Usti train station; and, most recently, in the moments leading up to the proper handling of our extremely valuable collection of ancient Chinese bronzes.

There is always a moment in museum work when the full weight of responsibility threatens to crush you dead. The combined force of the thousands of years this object has endured presses right through your fingers, and the terra cotta tomb figures lean in and whisper don’t slip up, you idiot.

That moment is countered by the rush of nerdy excitement you feel when you lift the first piece [and feel how heavy it is!] — when you think about the final time this bronze vessel was used as it was intended, before it was buried and left undisturbed for thousands of years, and how different the world must have been. As we were moving from the gallery to storage, Colin remarked, “the last person to drink out of this was probably about to be sacrificed.” I’ve been thinking about that all day.

The piece I was most nervous to move? This one:

Chinese, circa 1046 – 771 B.C.
Ceremonial Fang Ding, early Western Zhou dynasty
Bronze inlaid with black pigment
10.75 in. (27.5 cm) high
Collection of Florence K. Sloane, 1950
1950.0001.01(50-G-1)

Excavated in 1929 near the city of Luoyang in North-Eastern China, this dramatic tetrapod fang ding is one of the finest examples of its kind in the United States. Carbon dating and an inscription on the interior of the vessel confirm it was made during the early Western Zhou dynasty.

Meaning “square tripod,” the fang ding form is found throughout ancient Chinese civilization, including pottery versions from the Neolithic Period (c. 5000–2000 B.C) and bronzes from the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 B.C). The ding often held sacrificial offerings during religious ceremonies and was buried with its owner for use in the afterlife (mingqi). This early Western Zhou ding was most likely used for ceremonial preparation of food.

Cast in bronze and decorated with elaborate zoomorphic designs in bas and high relief, the Sloane ding accords with early Western Zhou design conventions. Each slender leg is topped by a gruesome taotie mask, representing the ancient Chinese god of greed and power. Zhou leaders relied on the mystical force of the taotie in battle and believed the god served a dual purpose: terrifying the enemy and protecting Zhou warriors. The inclusion of taotie on a ceremonial vessel was thought to endow the bearer with significant power and ward off enemies.

Provenance:

Florence K. Sloane purchased this exquisite bronze vessel in 1950 from T.L. Yuan, then the Director of the National Library in Peking (Beijing), China. The ding was hand-delivered to The Hermitage by Mr. Yuan in late May or early June of 1950. At the time of purchase the ding was purported to be Chou (another name for Zhou) dynasty, circa 1045-256 B.C.

In the same year, Mr. A.G. Wenley – Director of the Freer Gallery and a close friend and advisor of Mrs. Sloane – purchased a similar ding from Mr. Yuan. Mrs. Sloane promptly sent her ding to the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. for purposes of research and comparison. Upon further examination of both vessels, Mr. Wenley advised Mrs. Sloane in writing that neither were legitimate Chou dynasty bronzes and were perhaps modern reproductions. Despite Mr. Wenley’s discouraging letter, Mrs. Sloane kept the ding at the center of her collection. That Mrs. Sloane kept the vessel is testament to her fine eye and cultivated taste. Indeed, later research quickly proved Mr. Wenley’s initial supposition was incorrect.

Mrs. Sloane’s son Edward Knapp Sloane took over as director of The Hermitage in 1953 following his mother’s death. In 1957, Mr. Wenley wrote Mr. Sloane concerning a hunch he had about the supposedly counterfeit ding. In a letter dated April 16, Mr. Wenley posits that the Hermitage ding is part of a celebrated group of three bronze dings unearthed at Louyang in 1925. He writes:

There can be no doubt about it that your bronze is the fourth of a set said to have been found in Loyang [sic] in 1929. However, all the Chinese books report the discovery of only three, and give rubbings of the inscriptions of three. In none of these three are the characters of the inscription disposed in the same way as yours, and I can only surmise that at the time of the find yours was spirited away by some person or persons unknown! Another one with the characters of the inscription disposed similarly to that in the Freer is presumably in the national collection in Formosa. Where the fourth is I do not know, but there must be a fourth similar one since its particular inscription lacks one character which occurs in all the others.

Mr. Wenley points to the inscription on the interior of the ding as “irrefutable proof” that it is indeed one of four similar vessels uncovered at the Louyang sight in 1929. With the advent of radiocarbon dating in the mid-1960s, claims such as Mr. Wenley’s became possible to prove. The case of the Sloane fang ding was solved in 1997 when carbon dating proved it was authentic vessel, probably used for food presentation, and that it was made circa 1046-771 B.C. during the early Western Zhou dynasty.

This is not your mother’s jade

Let’s be honest: everyone likes to kick back with a cold one every now and again.  There is no reason to feel ashamed.  But did you know that 5000 years ago the Chinese were doing the exact same thing? You might want to watch your step because I’m about to drop some knowledge.

In the place of solo cups, early Chinese drinkers used vessels carved from precious jade.  Now don’t get ahead of yourself and think they were tossing early versions of ping-pong balls into these cups, because that would be far from the truth.  In fact, they rarely brought out the ‘good’ hardware because jade was considered a sacred stone and as a result was reserved for ceremonies.  Considering that most examples of early Chinese jade have been discovered in tombs, it seems safe to say that the everyday use of jade was limited.

The Hermitage is fortunate to not only have an outstanding Asian collection, but we also possess an unparalleled jade collection. Those in the know have said it is the best in the Southeast… but we don’t like to brag.

On display in our East wing is a particularly fine example of a jade libation vessel. It is, in fact, the oldest piece in our collection (this means, obviously, that you should come see it).

Standing at just over eight inches tall this prismatic stone cylinder demonstrates the superior craftsmanship of a culture that had not yet even reached the Bronze Age.  Known commonly as a ‘Tsung’ or ‘Cong’, these ceremonial vessels were not always used for holding liquids.  While it is exciting to think that the Chinese often engaged in ritual drinking sessions the realities of the vessel’s purpose were far more spiritual.  The tall quadrangular form with hollowed tubular center is meant to conjure up thoughts of the connections between the heavens and earth.  Eventually (during the Han dynasty, 206 B.C.-220 A.D.) the Chinese would identify the Cong’s shape as only a representation of the Earth.  It would also be at this much later date that one might find this type of vessel in a more active daily role.  In the case of our cong though we are dealing with a far more ritualistic piece that may have never been used by a human.  Early congs were used for storage as well as serving as incense burners.  Their presence was often a part of ceremonies that involved human burials and even sacrifices.  It would be here that the vessel might have been filled with a potent wine that helped shamans transcend our earthly realm.  Liquid courage was a popular item in Neolithic China, which ranges from well before 3000 B.C. to the end of the Shang dynasty in 1122 B.C.  Alcohol would continue to disappear and reappear throughout Chinese history as both a tool for reaching heavenly states to simply being a refreshing beverage choice.

A cong’s shape is not limited to the taller rectangular features like those seen at the Hermitage.  Shorter and more bulbous shapes were just as common.  What stays consistent are the motifs that show up on the vessels.  Each of the carved tiers on the exterior of a cong showcase the standardized imagery of Neolithic China.  Animal and semi-human faces tend to be the most popular figures to appear on early Congs.  The Hermitage’s ceremonial vessel has a simplified version of an animal mask grace its slightly tapered tiers.  If the vessel were to be seen in 2500 B.C. it would have had a thick dark brown shade throughout its entirety.  This would have made the recessed animal motifs much more noticeable than they are today.  The discoloration that can be seen stems from calcium eating away at the stone.  Where once was a brown tint now is a cloudy shade of white.  After all, this piece was  underground for well over two millennia.

Obviously there is far more to this vessel than a few short paragraphs on a blog can tell you.  I encourage you to do a little research of your own, or if you really want, come to the Hermitage and have a look at it for yourself!  Chances are I’ll be rummaging through our extensive Asian collection **cough cough, best in the Southeast, cough cough** and would love to see all of you enjoy what this museum has to offer.  I look forward to sharing more of our collection with you over the next few months.

The Murky Depths

My job at the Hermitage is like an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg, as it were, is the part the public sees: polished exhibits, carefully researched text panels and meticulously cleaned interiors.

The other part of my job – close to 96 percent of my duties – floats eerily beneath the waterline, well out of view. And now, thanks to climate change, that ominous bottom part is melting and spilling all over the place. Take this photo as evidence:

Acid-free archival boxes also make great curator forts.

Truth is, the second part of my job is easily the most important, and it is something the public rarely sees. That invisible job is, of course, the ongoing care of the tens of thousands of objects currently off display and housed in storage.

Just a fraction of our collections storage

The Sloane Collection is an especially tough beast. Thanks to the vision and enthusiasm of our patroness, Mrs. Florence K. Sloane, the collection is an exceptional cross-section of art history and comprises everything from Art Deco pieced-velvet opera capes to neolithic jade congs. We have objects made out of tooth, bone, skin, and hair; objects woven from the finest gossamer fibers; objects cast in bronze; objects hewn from rock; objects smelted over a hot fire; objects dug from the earth; objects containing animal skeletons; objects representing turning points in human history; and, of course, hundreds of paintings in all shapes and sizes.

Most of our work is done behind the scenes, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to share it with the public.  It is my special privilege to write about this part of my job here, and I hope you find the process as infinitely interesting as I do. And hey, if things ever get too serious, there’s always Colin to lighten the mood: