Burial Objects

The Chinese believe that each person has two souls. Upon death one ascends to heaven, while the other remains on earth buried in the tomb. Consequently, the contents of a tomb must keep the occupant happy in the afterlife. Note the money tree and treasure chest: the wealth and status of the occupant determined the quantity and quality of the tomb contents. These items provide valuable clues to life in the past, as few everyday objects survive from early Chinese history. A model of a house suggests architectural forms from the past. Dancers, storytellers, musicians, and acrobats imply popular entertainments, while soldiers, fierce beasts, and lokapalas offer protection. Protecting the body of the deceased was also important, leading to the creation of jade burial suits, which were believed during the Han dynasty to prevent decomposition of the body.

Three figures of Women on Horseback Playing Instruments

Three figures of Women on Horseback Playing Instruments

China, Northern Qi, 550–577 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 10928.1, 10929.1, 10930.1

These musicians were intended to entertain the occupant of the tomb. The stocky proportions of the horses and stiff poses of the figures are typical of this period.

Liubo Players, painted stone.

Liubo Board and Players

China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
Green glazed earthenware, painted stone
DBC 10731.1, 11233.1/2

Playing Liubo (game of sixes) was thought to offer protection from malicious entities. Often immortals were depicted playing it indicating its magical significance. The animated postures of these figures are remarkable.

Wine Ewer, painted earthenware

Wine Ewer

China, Western Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–8 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 10338.1

This unusual wine ewer has a spout shaped like a bird’s head and a body painted with white and red feathers. This creature may assist the deceased reach the land of the immortals. It is supported by three bears.

House & Courtyard, green glazed earthenware,

House and Courtyard

China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
Green glazed earthenware
DBC 11059.1

Since no architecture survives from the Han period, this model shows the practice of building multi–story structures using brackets to support heavy tile roofs. Figures adorn each level.

Pair of Acrobats figures

Two Performing Acrobats

China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
Glazed earthenware
DBC 11263.1/2

Acrobats were frequently painted on tomb walls, but clay representations of them are rare.

Dancer figure, painted earthenware,


China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 11177.1

The pose of this dancer is active and angular with upturned head.

Dancer figure, painted earthenware,


China, Eastern Han Dynasty, 25–220 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 10846.1

This dancing figure is portrayed in the midst of a performance, with robe flowing and long sleeves swirling. Her body twists as her head slants downward.

Lian, amber and green glazed earthenware


China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
Amber and green glazed earthenware
DBC 11134.1

The appearance of both green and amber lead glazes on a single piece is exceptionally rare. The stylized dancers trail swirling scarves. The body of this incense burner rests on three bear-shaped legs.

Lian with Acrobats, earthenware

Lian with Acrobats

China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
Glazed earthenware
DBC 10689.1

The two acrobats performing handstands on the rim of this censer are surmounted by a third acrobat in a handstand position.  They would have provided lively entertainment for the deceased.

Mounted Hunters and Cheetahs, painted earthenware,

Mounted Hunters and Cheetahs

China, Tang Dynasty, 618–907 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 10863.1/2

In this rare pair, the beards and pointed hats show the hunters are Central Asian. Tang China was very cosmopolitan due to trade along the Silk Road. Trained cheetahs assisted in the hunting of small mammals and fowl.

Storyteller, painted earthenware,


China, Eastern Han Dynasty, 25–220 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 10695.1

This animated singer with wrinkled brow squats with his right leg raised and a drum under his left arm. His right arm once held a drumstick. Figures like this were only created in Sichuan and served to entertain the occupant of the tomb.

Drummers and Drum, painted earthenware,

Drummers and Drum

China, Western Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–8 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 11215.1/3

Two tall, lean, alert drummers flank a jiangu or erected drum, a drum type known for thousands of years in China. Few ceramic examples have survived.

Pair of Lokapala, Guardians painted earthenware

Pair of Lokapalas

China, Tang Dynasty, 618–907 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 11244.1/2

Tang sculptors achieved true three dimensionality for the first time. The S-curve of the body implies the potential for movement. These impressive guardians stand triumphant atop a deer and a bullock. The fierce expressions and full armor make them convincing guardians of the tomb.

Warrior, painted earthenware,


China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 11139.1

With expressive face and full armor, this warrior guarded the tomb occupant. He wears lamellar armor, made up of small rectangular plates of metal or leather laced into rows, as well as greaves to protect his shins. His left hand would have held a shield, his right hand a spear.

Kneeling Mother Feeding Baby, earthenware

Kneeling Mother Feeding Baby

China, Eastern Han Dynasty, 25–220 CE
DBC 11023.1/2

This theme is extremely unusual. The detailed modeling and expressiveness are typical of tomb figures created in Sichuan province.

Tricorn Beast, earthenware figure

Tricorn Beast

China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
DBC 10407.1

This spirited mythical beast, a combination of rhinoceros, dragon, and tiger, assumes an active pose to guard the tomb.

Village Money Tree Stand, earthenware,

Money Tree Stand

China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
DBC 11011.1

This spectacular money tree stand is unusually large and complex. It depicts a multi-level village group with tree-like columns with sun and moon. It is replete with musicians, hunters on horseback, figures engaged in various activities. Birds, dogs, bridges, caves, balconies, caves, and ramps offer a unique view of the variety of Han culture.

Camel and Rider, painted earthenware figures

Bactrian Camel and Rider

China, Tang Dynasty, 618–907 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 10865.1

The camel is realistically modelled with head thrown back, and the bearded rider wears foreign clothing. Camels offered the most effective means of transporting goods along the Silk Road. The saddle and saddle blanket have Arabic inscriptions.

Foreign Groom, painted earthenware figure

Foreign Groom

China, Tang Dynasty, 618–907 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 10864.1

This groom wears a tall hat, coat, and boots, all typical of foreigners. His hands are outstretched to hold reins. He is most likely a Uyghur. Modern Uyghurs form a Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, and have been the focus wide-scale repression and genocide by the Chinese government. The current Chinese population of 1.445 billion people includes 91 percent Han Chinese and 9 percent minorities; this homogeneity is in stark contrast to the diversity of the United States.

Prancing Horse, earthenware.

Prancing Horse

China, Tang Dynasty, 618–907 CE
DBC 11114.1

The active pose epitomizes the ability of the Tang craftsman to capture a strong horse in motion. A  groove along the back of the neck once held organic material as the mane.

Table, green glazed earthenware,


China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
Green glazed earthenware
DBC 11138.1

This rare table has detachable hipped legs with hoof-shaped feet. It functioned as a serving table in a tomb.

Cocoon Vase, painted earthenware

Cocoon Vase

China, Western Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–8 CE
Painted earthenware
DBC 10252.1

The shape of this vessel resembles a silk-worm cocoon and reflects the importance of silk production in China. The swirling cloud suggests the vapors through which the soul must travel on its way to the immortal realm.

Spirit Vase, rare turquoise glazed porcelain

Spirit Vase

China, Yuan Dynasty, 1279–1368
Glazed stoneware
DBC 10553.1

The rich turquoise glaze, reflecting Persian ceramics, makes this spirit vaserare and important.

Large and heavily potted three-tiered Hunping spirit jar or funeral vessel.

Hunping Spirit Vessel

China, Western Jin Dynasty, 265–316
Amber glazed stoneware
DBC 10632.1

This vessel was made to house the soul of someone who could not be properly buried. Alternatively, it might contain rice. It is encrusted with animals and figures beginning with a bird at its peak. Hunters, dancers, musicians, singers, acrobats and a dining table laden with food provide for the occupant, who is shown in the lowest register ascending to heaven. It was made in the Yue kilns in south China.

two Funeral Vases, Qingbai ware

Funerary Vases

China, Southern Song Dynasty, 1127–1279 CE
Qingbai ware
DBC 11010.1/4

These vases may have been filled with aromatic oils in the tomb. Qingbai, “bluish white” or “greenish white,” refers to the thin, clear glaze with a faint tone which is darker where it pools on the fine-grained white translucent porcelain body. Dragons encircle the top rim above a row of mourning figures. Birds surmount the covers.

Hu, green glazed earthenware


China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
Green glazed earthenware
DBC 10973.1

The shape of this jar, with its hunting scene decoration and two taotie animal-mask ring handles, is based on a bronze vessel made to hold wine. A green lead copper oxide glaze covers the red earthenware body and was fired to about 700° C.

Green Covered Jar, Longquan celadon

Covered Jar

China, Southern Song Dynasty, 1127–1279
Longquan celadon
DBC 10461.1/2

This jar would have contained an offering for the deceased. Numerous kilns in Longquan district in southwestern Zhejiang province produced celadon-glazed porcelaneous wares. The high-fired green glaze derives its color from iron oxide fired in a reduction kiln. The thick, smooth lustrous glaze looks and feels like jade. A three-clawed dragon modelled in high relief winds around the jar in pursuit of a pearl. The cover is surmounted by a recumbent dog finial.

Hill Censor, green glazed earthenware

Hill Censor

China, Eastern Han Dynasty, 25–220 CE
Green glazed earthenware
DBC 10395.1

The body of this incense burner has a molded scene of mythical creatures in a landscape and is supported on three human figures. Its conical mountain cover is perforated by holes through which the incense smoke rose. It refers to the legendary Daoist Isles of the Immortals where one can live forever.

Jade burial suit

Burial Suit

China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE or later
Jade, gold wire, and silk

DBC 11237.1

Thousands of jade plaques sewn together with gold wire form this life size burial suit composed of head, torso, arms, hands, legs,and feet. A pair of phoenix birds carved in relief on the breast suggest it was intended for a woman. Suits like this were rare and extraordinarily expensive to produce. Only made for the wealthy, they were believed to prevent decomposition of the body and protect the occupant from evil spirits.

Bi Disk, Tiles from a Burial Suit, Cicada, Silk Worms, Pig

China, Neolithic Period, Warring States Period, Han Dynasty, Qing Dynasty
DBC 10600.1, 11252.1/18, 10126.1, 10854.1/2, 10467.1

The ritual Bi disk represents heaven and was often placed on the chest of the deceased prior to enclosing the body in a jade burial suit. These tiles bear the image of a dragon which might have been filled with gold, long ago removed by tomb looters along with the gold wires which held the tiles together. The cicada signifies reincarnation, thus forming an auspicious item for burial. Silk worms enabled the deceased to have sumptuous clothing in the afterlife. The pig, often placed in the hand of the deceased, ensured abundant food.

A jade archaic astronomical disc.

Jade Mottled Whitish-Green Bi (Pi) Ritual Disk

Group of Twelve Calcified Jade Tiles from a Burial Suit

Tiles from a Burial Suit

Carved White Jade Cicada

Carved White Jade Cicada

Pair of carved white jade silkworms

Carved Jade Silkworms

Carved Jade Pig

Carved Jade Pig

12 Zodiac Figures, painted earthenware

Zodiac Figures

China, Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644
Painted earthenware
DBC 11214.1/12

Each molded figure is dressed as a court dignitary and holds one of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Each one embodies particular qualities and is associated with a specific year.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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