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These terracotta figurines were unearthed by archaeologists from the Datong Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology from a tomb dating to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) in Datong, Shanxi province. Source: China Daily

Wei Dynasty Terracotta Figurines Enrich Our Knowledge of Ancient China

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Datong, Shanxi province has now yielded a large number of terracotta figurines, dated 1,500-years-old in the latest round of archaeological finds - all from the tombs of the upper class. Due to where they were found, the figurines provide a window into the study of funeral culture, ethnic costumes, and social life in the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534 AD). Beautiful and varied patterns have been found in the figurines, including musicians, dancers, servants, laborers, animals, and vessels.

Ancient and medieval China’s tryst with terracotta in burial practices has been well documented – with the showcase being Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta army, a funerary rite buried with him. Discovered in 1974, they took the world of history and archaeology by storm, with more than 8,000 soldiers in total.

The parade of entertainers was led by horsemen such as this. (China Daily)

The parade of entertainers was led by horsemen such as this. ( China Daily )

Upper Class Burial and Aspects of Daily Life

But such effigies accompanied many to the afterlife. The latest finds, made by archaeologists from the Datong Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, were located in tomb 113 at Datong. A majority of these were earthenware figurines led by pottery horsemen. Behind them lies a full entourage of laborers, animals, daily life objects, bullock carts, 10 Hu figurines, musicians, acrobats, and dancers posted in dynamic forms, reports Arkeo News .

The female dancers are of particular interest, as their costumes provide a window into understanding the connection between attire and national culture. The quality and quantity of pottery in Tomb 113 is indicative of the high status of the buried person, in the final years of Datong being the Wei capital.

These ghost-like terracotta dancing figures were unearthed by archaeologists from the Datong Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology from a tomb dating to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) in Datong, Shanxi province. (China Daily)

These ghost-like terracotta dancing figures were unearthed by archaeologists from the Datong Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology from a tomb dating to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) in Datong, Shanxi province. ( China Daily )

The figurines are typical of what one has come to expect from the Northern Wei – deep, wide-set eyes, with short, high noses, and round necked long robes, with narrow sleeves. The robes have slight slits at the bottom, that display the performer’s boots.

There are three female musicians in the background, seated and wearing a high cloche-shaped (close fitting bell shaped) hat, with a Y-shaped groove positioned at the front that runs up and down showing the flap of the closed garment. It is then twisted around the back of the head, and a little skirt covering the back of the neck underneath the hat’s tie, reports The History Blog .

Three female musicians with distinctive hats to their costume. (China Daily)

Three female musicians with distinctive hats to their costume. ( China Daily )

Pingcheng to Luoyang: Turning Tides, Changing Capitals

Datong was called Pingcheng, capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty from 398 until 494. The capital had to be hurriedly shifted to Luoyang in 494 AD by Emperor Xiaowen, due to repeated droughts, famines, and an overall low-temperature environment. The shift of the capital has been regarded by many modern-day scholars and researchers as an ancient adaptation to climate change . It was also vulnerable to raids and incursions from the proto-Mongolic Rouran Khaganate to the north.

Pingcheng was also in the nomadic steppe area unlike Luoyang, which had been extensively settled due its proximity to the Yellow River basin area. Its population and importance further plummeted, and its tag as a regional administrative center was taken away in 520.

With the advent of Buddhism, the importance of Pingcheng further declined, leading to almost total abandonment. This is witnessed by the 30,000 Buddhist images from caves outside Luoyang, amongst others, along with a host of other Taoist and Buddhist art, which were being provided patronage in the new capital. These antiques and art works have survived till today.

Top image: These terracotta figurines were unearthed by archaeologists from the Datong Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology from a tomb dating to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) in Datong, Shanxi province.  Source: China Daily

By Sahir Pandey

References

Aton, F. 2022. 1,500-Year-Old Terracotta Figurines Found in Tomb in Northern China . Available at: https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/1500-year-old-terracotta-figurines-found-in-northern-china-1234646610/.

Büyükyıldırım, O. 2022. Ancient terracotta dancers, and musicians unearthed in China . Available at: https://arkeonews.net/ancient-terracotta-dancers-and-musicians-unearthed-in-china/.

Ruisheng, S. 2022. Ancient terracotta figurines unearthed in Shanxi . Available at: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202211/10/WS636cd85da310491754328ffe.html.

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