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
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.
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.