Object: Bronze Food Bowl

E_1963_4_8Accession Number:           E/1963/4/008

Object:                                      This is a cast bronze food bowl with a lid. It has two handles and an inscription inside. It is in very good condition for being roughly 2500 years old.

Location:                                 This object comes from the Chou dynasty of ancient China.

Date:                                          Exact date unknown, but roughly 800 B.C.E

Material:                                  Cast Bronze

Keywords

Chou Dynasty, Zhou Dynasty, Bronze, Food Bowl

Object Background

This item is notable for its intricate patterns, inscription on the inner surface, and animal motifs. The intricate patterns point to the fact that the food bowls served more than a utilitarian purpose. These objects were used in a ceremonial or ritual context, so their designs had to be aesthetically pleasing. An inscription on the inner surface of the bowl is common amongst Chinese bronzes. The inscription could signify who made the bowl, who it was for, or the purpose of the bowl [1] [2]. Last, the animal motifs are commonly seen amongst other bronze objects. The taotie symbol is one that is animalistic but does not look like any one particular animal. It has feline and bovine characteristics and was a universally understood symbol at the time even though its meaning has been lost [3]. Last, a ram is seen on the handles of the bowl. Rams were often used to symbolize good luck and happiness [4].  So, this bronze food bowl could have been used in a ritual as a form of celebration of a god or deceased ancestor.

Cultural Background

The Chou (Zhou) Dynasty ruled from 1122 B.C.E – 256 B.C.E and was the longest ruling of the ancient Chinese dynasties. In addition to its long tenure, this dynasty is notable for its intricate bronze figurines, food containers, and other similar items [5]. Primarily used by wealthy and noble people as a ceremonial object, these bronze objects also served other purposes. Bronze bowls, in particular, were important for their aesthetics and their multifunctionality.

Discussion

While it is difficult to know the specific purpose of this bronze food bowl due to the large possibility of uses, it is very similar to other collected artifacts from ancient China. This helps to understand how it could have been used. It is very likely that this bronze food bowl saw use due to the fact that a white line, similar to a water line, is visible near the bottom of the interior surface. This could imply that food or drink sat stagnant in the bowl for a very long period of time. Based on this assumption, the aesthetics and symbols of the bowl, and the possible functions, it is probable that this bowl held a sacrificial offering. This offering was likely used in a ceremonial manner in which one was asking for happiness and good luck either for themselves, a god, or a deceased relative. The various symbols throughout the bowl are tied to Chinese religion, and these bowls were commonplace in rituals.

Furthermore, this bronze food bowl helps demonstrate the overall culture of ancient China. Since these bowls were used for sacrifices or rituals, it tells about the religion. For example, this shows that the religion of early China was somewhat similar to that of the Mayans with the use of sacrificial offerings. It also parallels that of ancient Egypt with the use of burial objects to provide food or other things to ancestors during the afterlife. Moreover, these objects show how a largely agrarian culture behaved and their everyday life was intertwined with their religion.

Last, it is important to note that many of these bronze vessels were reserved for nobility or the wealthy. Bronze was very expensive and valuable so it could not be purchased by all people. These items demonstrate that, as is expected, the upper class had a different way of life than the peasants. They were able to be in touch with their ancestors and provide for their deceased relatives even through the afterlife. The bronze bowls can serve many purposes in ancient China, but they were primarily used by the rich in a ceremonial context.

 

Works Cited

[1] Lippe, Aschwin. 1950. “A Gift of Chinese Bronzes.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 9(4): 97-107.

[2] Magurn, Blanche. 1945. “A Collection of Chinese Bronzes.” Bulletin of the Fogg Art Museum 10(3): 87-92.

[3] Ho, Wai-Kam. 1964. “Shang and Chou Bronzes.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 51(7): 175-187.

[4] Von Erdberg, Eleanor, and Wen C. Fong. 1978. “Chinese Bronzes: From the Collection of Chester Dale and Dolly Carter”. Artibus Asiae. Supplementum 35: 152-153

[5] Walker, Paul. Unknown. “Bronze Food Bowl.” Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

Works Referenced

Bagley, Robert. 2006. “Ornament, Representation, and Imaginary Animals in Bronze Age China.” Arts Asiatiques 61: 17-29.

Hay, John. 1999. “Questions of Influence in Chinese Art History.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics (25): 240-262.

Sterckx, Roel. 2013. “Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China.” Asian Ethnology 72(2): 336-339.

Xu, Jay. 2006. “Food Vessel (Fangding).” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 32(1): 28-29.

 

((Austin Bashaw)) Written as part of the ANTH1253 2018 Spring Semester Class Project

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