Two Pottery Tiles from a Han Dynasty Tomb

By: H. E. F.

Originally Published in 1933

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TWO important additions have recently been made, by purchase, to the Chinese collections in the Museum, in the form of panels from so-called Han tomb ‘bricks,’ decorated with stamped incised designs. Such bricks have come rather recently to the notice of archaeologists and are of great interest because of their various designs and the light they throw upon costume, weapons, architecture and customs of the Han period. These two slabs just acquired [Plate VII] are of exceptional interest, because some of the motives upon them are unusual and because they have been painted.

Two types of Han tomb bricks have come to be generally recognized. There is, first, the small solid building-brick type, with one of its long narrow edges (the edge which would show) ornamented with a moulded design in low relief. Small vaulted tomb-chambers built of such bricks, with geometric designs, have been excavated in Korea by the Japanese at the site of the Chinese colony at Lo Lang. Dr. Torrance has found them similarly used in Szech’üan Province, where the designs are often of mythological subjects, and he states that in the caves they were frequently used for encasing the coffin.

Two tomb bricks showing animal scenes
Plate VII — Incised and Painted Pottery Tiles from a Chinese Tomb of the Han Dynasty
Museum Object Numbers: 31-32-1 / 31-32-2
Image Numbers: 1436, 1435

The second type is quite different, being in the shape of large hollow-tile bricks some four feet long and twenty inches high. The thickness is about six inches, and two holes at one end and a long narrow slit in the other end open into the hollow interior. These large hollow-tile bricks were ornamented on both faces and according to the excavations of Dr. F. Buckens, in Honan, were used to build a sort of covered box around the coffin, inside of which there was space not only for the coffin but for jars and figures and other mortuary articles.

Our two painted tiles appear to have been cut from the faces of hollow-tile bricks of this latter class. It has been suggested by Dr. D. S. Dye, of the West China Union University at Chengtu, that they might be portions of a tile coffin such as are quite common in Szech’üan, but we know of no coffins decorated in this fashion, and the motives in this instance are closely allied to those on the hollow-tile bricks from Honan. For the present we must await more evidence.

These two slabs are of fine, cold grey pottery, fired so hard that they give out a ringing tone when struck. The inside surfaces, or backs, are rough, showing the marks of hands which smoothed down the clay. The thickness averages one and one-quarter inches, which is the same as the wall of the hollow tiles. A deposit of sediment at various water lines, both on the front and back of these slabs indicates that water and silt must have filled in around the coffin and its tile encasement to the depth, at one time at least, of over nine inches.

The ornamentation on the outer face consists of motives arranged in a frieze. Each motive has been made by a stamp which impressed an incised line design into the surface of the tile while the clay was still soft. On the larger of the two slabs appear a winged horse, two white cranes, and a flowering tree-of-life with a bird in it, while below them runs a wide border of simple lozenge pattern. The lower edge is nicely turned and enough remains of the bottom surface (the farther edge is broken, but it offers two and three-quarters inches width at its widest point) to display an impressed diaper pattern of squares of simple lattice design. The top and side edges of the slab have been recently cut, so the original length and height are not known. The lozenge and horse motives are known to occur on many of the large hollow-tile bricks, and the crane does appear occasionally, usually with a fish in its bill. But the tree-of-life motive is a new one-at least, no published examples of bricks showing it have appeared before, and even the stone reliefs from the famous Wu Tombs do not display such elaborate flowering specimens as this, although the branches curve and interlace in the same way.

The second, slightly smaller slab is nearly square, and no one of its edges is original. The lozenge border at the bottom has been cut off-if there ever was one, as seems likely. The motives of design on this are quite remarkable. At the top a huge parrot-like bird, not elsewhere known on these bricks, and a small peacock-like bird confront each other. Below them is a strange scene, that of a man running who appears to have just lassoed a tiger. The tiger, in the act of prancing proudly off toward the right, turns his head to look back in astonishment. It is our astonishment which is increased when we see that the rope is attached to a collar around the tiger’s neck. The tiger is evidently on a leash and the man is trying to pull him in the other direction. The rope connecting the two units of design, the man and the tiger, has been incised free-hand with a small stick or blunt tool. The very same tiger occurs, line for line (and perhaps made by the same stamp), on a brick published by Dr. Sowerby in the China Journal for March 1933, where it is suggested that the presence of a collar might indicate that tigers were used for hunting. Indeed, certain scenes on the sculptured pillars of Szech’üan could be thus interpreted. Similarities between the Sowerby brick and one published by Dr. Sirén in his History (his Plate 2 B) are such that we believe the same stamps were used for both.

The remains of paint on the two slabs under discussion is an unusual feature. The colors appear to be earthy pigments applied in flat washes, and comprise white, maroon red, yellow ochre, and a cold pale purple-blue. The horse is red with white wings, the tiger yellow ochre, and the man and birds white, while the tree shows blue blossoms with white dots outlining the clusters.

The provenance of most of the decorated hollow-tile bricks so far discovered is said to be Honan; in the case of those excavated by Dr. Buckens it is known to be Honan. We can only say that these two slabs, whether cut from the faces of such bricks, or from whole sarcophagi, display the same units of design as are seen on the Honan examples. The characteristic clay, and the style of the motives, costumes and weapons, would point to a Han date (205 B. C.-A. D. 221), even had Dr. Buckens not found Han pottery associated with such bricks.

Five other portions of tile were grouped with these two and seem to have been from the same coffin set. Two showed the same horse, the other three the horse reversed. The same tree-of-life occurred twice and near it the peacock bird of the tiger slab.


Cite This Article

F., H. E.. "Two Pottery Tiles from a Han Dynasty Tomb." Museum Bulletin IV, no. 4 (June, 1933): 103-107. Accessed April 13, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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