Archive for the 'Brass' Category

Object: Buddha and Halo

Figure 1 Statue of Buddha with Halo from Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Statue of Buddha with Halo from Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Buddha and Halo statue
Asia: India/Nepal

This Buddha statue with flaming halo is roughly 29 ¾” tall, 18” wide, and 8 ½” deep. It features a Buddha figure on a lotus flower pedestal, with a halo of flames and Hindu deities surrounding him.

Buddhism is a widely practiced religion based on the teachings of Siddartha Gautama, an ancient prince who is believed to have given up all his worldly possessions and achieved the highest spiritual freedom: enlightenment. Different traditions of Buddhism have different beliefs about Buddha. Some believe he was an actual prince, others believe he was a reincarnation of a Hindu god, while still others believe there was no man at all, but simply the development and spread of an ideological belief system.

The hand symbols of any Buddha statue are significant in understanding the meaning of the statue’s presence. The hand positions are called “mudras” or “mark of identity” in Sanskrit. They are used in both Hinduism and Buddhism as a kind of language to evoke certain ideas or principals. This particular statue has the right hand in the position of charity and generosity, while the left hand appears to be in the position of wisdom.

The lotus throne that the Buddha is sitting on is a common theme in Asian religions, representing the path to enlightenment. The lotus flower is firmly grounded in the earth, yet is able to grow above the murky water of earthly suffering to enlightenment. The Buddha is commonly depicted with a lotus flower, or some kind of lotus reference, as seen here with his pedestal.

The Buddha is surrounded by Hindu deities in this statue, which helps contextualize the way Buddhism was received and adapted into cultures as it spread throughout Asia. Buddhism’s basic tenets speak to the basic tenets of many ancient and modern religions. To be a good Buddhist is to be morally right in knowledge, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. These tenets are then further identified in each regional interpretation of Buddhism. In this Buddha statue, we see that the ideas of reincarnation and a pantheon of gods are incorporated into the Buddhist framework of Indian and Nepalese beliefs.

To learn more about Buddhism, take a look at this BBC documentary:

[Anna Nowka]

Other Resources:

Harvey, Peter. 2013. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge University Press: New York.

Object: Brass Emblem

Brass Emblem
Asia: Nepal
Unknown Age
Material: Brass

This is a brass religious emblem from Nepal. It is 17.5 inches tall and 5.5 inches in diameter. We do not know where specifically this object comes from, but we do know it represents the Tower of Life, a holy emblem in Hindu and Buddhist belief systems. This symbol is often used to mark temple entrances. Each tier of the emblem represents a plane of human consciousness and existence that reaches upward towards heaven.

The Indus Valley region was home to the early Vedic religions, which focused on ritual and social obligation and included a pantheon of deities. Reincarnation, or rebirth, and karma were ideas introduced very early in this belief system in religious texts such as the Vedas, Brahamanas and the Upanishads. These are all influential teachings in Hinduism, which developed from these early Vedic beliefs. Hinduism today believes in one Supreme Being that manifests itself in many forms, primarily Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, forming the Hindu trinity.

Siddhartha Guatama, a Hindu man born in Nepal, supported certain aspects of his native religion, such as karma – the notion of moral cause and effect, based on behavior.  However, he rejected other facets of this theology, such as the strict caste system deeply embedded in Hindu societies, and the importance of rituals. Instead, he encouraged people to disassociate themselves from earthly pleasures, and focus instead on attaining personal enlightenment, or Nirvana, by eliminating all desire. After reaching enlightenment, Guatama became known as Buddha, and his teachings became the backbone of the Buddhist belief system that then swept through                                                                          East Asia and then around the world.

As Buddhism and Hinduism developed and changed over the centuries throughout Asia, both religions prospered in Nepal, producing a powerful artistic and architectural fusion. Buildings reflect outstanding craftsmanship in their intricate ornamentation in brick, stone, timber and bronze that are some of the most highly developed in the world.

Take a look at this PBS Documentary to learn more about the development and spread of Buddhism:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Brass Weight

Weight for measuring gold
Ashanti (or Asante)
Africa: Guinea Coast: Ghana
Ca. 15th-19th Century
Materials: Cast Brass

This African object is a weight made out of brass that was used for weighing gold dust. It is very small, only 1.5” long by 0.75” wide, and it was cast, or molded, to look like the body of a beetle.

The “Gold Coast,” located on the Gulf of Guinea in Africa, has long been known for the large quantities of gold found there. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in this area in the 1400’s, but they were soon followed by the British, Dutch and other European explorers. The British seized the area in 1867, forming the British colony known as the “Gold Coast.” Between the 15th and 19th century, gold dust served as the primary currency for the West African country of Ghana, particularly for the Ashanti (also known as the Asante) people. Most households had their own set of weights and scales so that they could conduct their own transactions. These interesting little weights were made in a variety of shapes and sizes including  geometric shapes, animals, plants, and even common household items such as a stool or a hammer.

These tiny weights were made in a really interesting way. They were first formed out of beeswax. This beeswax was then covered in clay, which was allowed to dry and harden. It was then placed into a fire, where the beeswax melted out, leaving a hollow form in the clay. Then, molten brass was poured into this clay mold, and, as it cooled and hardened, it took on the shape of the original beeswax form. The clay was then broken away so that the solid brass weight emerged completely finished. This method, known as the “lost-wax” method has been used for centuries in many cultures around the world. This particular beetle weight from the Ethnology Collection, however, was created using an unusual adaptation of this method. Instead of creating a shape out of beeswax and then covering it in clay, a real live beetle was covered in clay. Once the clay dried and hardened, the dead beetle was burned out of the mold, leaving an impression of the insect in the clay. It was then filled with molten brass and allowed to harden just like the lost-wax method.

Because everyone had a different set of weights, both parties always had to check the value of the gold dust with their own weights so they could be sure they were getting a fair deal. These weights therefore needed to be small and portable so they could be easily carried around. Anyone who found gold dust could keep it, but large nuggets, or pieces, had to be surrendered, or handed over, to the royal court. This gold was then exported to Europe and became the basis for British currency. It was not until 1957 that the Ashanti people finally regained their independence and formed the Republic of Ghana. It was around this same time that gold dust was replaced by the coins and paper money in use today.

Take a look at this interesting video showing contemporary Asante artists working in the lost-wax casting method:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Photo Quiz Answer!

Thanks to everyone who took the photo quiz last week! Now, what is this object?


This is a brass treasure chest (or manuscript chest) from the Ethnology collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. It was collected in the early 20th Century and is inlaid with stones and decorated with gold filagree. Nepal, a country bordering both China and India, has a diverse and fascinating history defined in large part by their location in the Himalayas and their position as a cross-roads between China and India. A chest like this would have been used to hold small treasures and important manuscripts by wealthy nobles or perhaps members of the ruling family.

To see a timeline of Nepal’s complex history, take a look at this link.

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Mouth organ

Mouth Organ (sheng or sho)
Unknown date: prior to 1955
Materials: bamboo, lacquer, cloth, and brass

This object is a mouth organ, or sho from Japan. This type of musical instrument was developed in Japan based on a similar type of instrument, the Chinese sheng. Sho are used in Gagaku, the traditional orchestral music of the Japanese court. This type of instrument is played by blowing air into the mouthpiece or drawing air through the instrument, which circulates the air into the bamboo tubes where it vibrates tiny metal reeds. Because the instrument produces sound on both the inhale and exhale, long periods of uninterrupted sound are possible. The tubes are arranged to represent the folded wings of a phoenix, a symbol of the imperial house. It is also thought that the sho imitates the call of the phoenix.

The present day Japanese sho is thinner than the Chinese sheng, and plays at a higher octave. Traditionally sho were constructed from very old and blackened bamboo that was part of a thatched roof, directly above the kitchen in a traditional Japanese house. Today the pieces of bamboo use in the construction of a sho are still heated over a fire to eliminate moisture that could effect the sound.

The following video demonstrates how a Japanese sho is played.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Opium Pipe

Opium pipe
Dynastic China
Asia: China
prior to 1950
Materials: Wood, ivory, brass, and ceramic

Pipes of this type were used in Dynastic China to smoke the drug opium. Opium has been ingested as a medicine and painkiller for thousands of years. Sometime in the middle of the 17th century people also began to smoke the drug for recreational purposes. It soon became a major trade good for a number of colonial powers operating out of Asia, like the East India Company. Opium is made from the seed pod of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), and contains varying amounts of alkaloids such as morphine, codeine, thebaine and papaverine that are still used in various pharmaceuticals and street drugs today. Opium is a highly addictive narcotic and its use as a painkiller must be strictly controlled. The addictive effects of opium were well known as early as the 1830s when it was said that nearly 9 of 10 Chinese men were thought to be opium addicts. This widespread addiction led Chinese officials of the Qing Dynasty to attempt to eliminate the substance from their country and further restrict trade with Britain, leading to the Opium Wars. Pipes of this type were designed with special pipe-bowls that were meant to vaporize the drug, rather than burn it like other types of pipe. Opium pipe-bowls were usually made of ceramic and depicted traditional Chinese symbols of longevity, wealth, and happiness.

The following video gives additional information on the opium poppy plant. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Smoking set

Smoking set
ca. 1950s
Materials: Wood, brass, mother of pearl

This smoking set features an image of the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, in what is now Seoul, South Korea on the lid. This historic building was constructed in 1412 by King Taejong of the Joseon Dynasty. Now a national landmark of Korea, the pavilion was originally used as the state banquet hall and was part of the larger Gyeongbokgung Palace complex. The Gyeongbokgung, meaning “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven,” was the largest of the Five Grand Palaces build by the Joseon Dynasty in Korea.

The Joseon Dynasty ruled over the united Korean Peninsula from 1392 until the Japanese Occupation of Korea in 1910. This was the last royal dynasty of Korea and was known for its strong Confucian ideals, and for the development of science, literature and technology in Korea. This dynasty, though often troubled by wars and conflict, presided over a period of great cultural growth. The Korean tea ceremony was codified, and many gardens and palaces were built during this period.

The interior of the box contains a small brass bowl, that was used as an ashtray and a small compartment to store cigarettes, matches or other small items. While some of the image is painted, most of the decoration is inlaid mother of pearl. Mother of pearl is an iridescent blend of minerals, also known as nacre, that is produced by oysters and other mollusks. This substance is used to coat the inside of the mollusk’s shell and protects their bodies from parasites and foreign objects. Nacre is the same type of material that forms pearls. Below you will find a short video that explains how pearls are formed in oysters. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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