Roughly coinciding with the Roman Empire, the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) was a pivotal period in Chinese history that significantly shaped China’s cultural identity. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Han-dynasty Chinese had complex beliefs concerning the afterlife. They referred to the tomb as a “subterranean palace” (digong), and filled it with items they believed the soul needed after death. The most striking of these are ceramic and wood sculptures of soldiers, maids, and other servants, including dogs to guard the tomb’s entrance. The tomb walls were decorated with murals, or with designs on ceramic tiles envisioning the afterlife. The Academy is fortunate to have an entire set of tiles that would have served as a tomb archway, decorated with attendants, horses and other figures that preserve some sense of the lost tradition of painting during this early age.
Such objects capture aspects of Han life long buried by the dust of time, from painted designs on sculptures that preserve textile patterns and dress styles, to intricately cast bronze belt hooks and other personal adornments inlaid with gold and silver, to remarkable ceramic models of towers and other buildings that reveal the qualities of Chinese wood-frame architecture centuries before the earliest buildings that still survive.