A new exhibition just opened at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty display 160 artifacts discovered in recent archaeological digs of Han dynasty tombs. One of the most powerful civilizations of the ancient world, China’s Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) achieved profound cultural and artistic influence, technological advancements and military might. Ruled by 29 emperors for over 400 years, the dynasty represents the first “golden era” of development in Chinese history, a time when its diverse ethnic groups experienced relative stability, social development and harmony. Two thousand years later, discoveries of royal tombs allow us to glimpse these extraordinary accomplishments firsthand.
Emulating their grand palaces, Han royals built lavishly furnished tombs so that, in the afterlife, no need would go unmet. Daily utensils, kitchen vessels, royal symbols, weaponry and even toiletries were all accounted for. And the nobility spared no expense preserving the tools of earthly pleasures—food, music, wine, sex—in anticipation of an afterlife to surpass this world.
Objects in Tomb Treasures were excavated from royal tombs in China’s Jiangsu province, mostly from the mausoleum of Liu Fei (劉非), which has generated significant buzz in recent years. In early 2009, the deaths of four tomb robbers brought the attention of the local government to a rural site: a stone quarry on Dayun Mountain (大雲山). Over the next two years, archaeologists excavated three large tombs, 13 attendant tombs, two weaponry pits and two chariot pits containing more than 10,000 artifacts. These fascinating objects share stories of the economic and social development of the Han dynasty and provide insight into the quest of the Han elite for glory even after death.
Measuring over 1,600 feet on each side, the royal mausoleum’s total area amounts to almost 2.7 million square feet, about the size of 35 soccer fields. It consists of the tombs of Liu Fei and his two consorts, dozens of graves for concubines, and pits for chariots and weapons, closely resembling how the king’s actual palace would have been designed. The mausoleum was amply stocked with items that the king would find useful or enjoyable, everything from weapons to kitchen utensils to musical instruments to human figurines that would act as servants in the next world. Objects were often packed together tightly, and many were found damaged and later restored by Nanjing Museum.
The exhibition runs through May 28, 2017. The Museum is closed on Mondays.
Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin St.
San Francisco, CA 94102