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Gallery Text

One of the earliest forms of Chinese writing is preserved in the simple inscriptions on bronze vessels from the late Shang period. Integrally cast into the bronzes — as opposed to being incised into the vessel after the metal had hardened — these marks were usually placed on the interior wall or floor of a vessel; the lids of covered vessels had matching marks on their undersides. Shang inscriptions tend to be highly pictographic, with many resembling birds, weapons, or humanoid figures. The inscriptions are not always translatable into modern Chinese characters, but most are identifiable as the names of either the aristocratic owners who commissioned the vessels, or the ancestors to whom they were dedicated. During the succeeding Zhou dynasty, written characters became more standardized and bronze inscriptions lengthened, often commemorating an event in which the person commissioning the bronze was involved. Bronze inscriptions were thus akin to historical texts worthy of preservation and study.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
1943.52.23
Title
Ceremonial Axe
Classification
Ritual Implements
Work Type
axe
Date
14th-11th century BCE
Places
Creation Place: East Asia, China
Period
Shang dynasty, c. 1600-c. 1050 BCE
Culture
Chinese
Persistent Link
https://hvrd.art/o/204567
Location
Level 1, Room 1740, Early Chinese Art, Arts of Ancient China from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age
View this object's location on our interactive map
Physical Descriptions
Medium
Cast bronze
Technique
Cast
Dimensions
H. 22.2 x W. 15.7 x Thickness 1.5 cm (8 3/4 x 6 3/16 x 9/16 in.)
Provenance
Grenville L. Winthrop, New York (by 1943), bequest; to Fogg Art Museum, 1943.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop
Accession Year
1943
Object Number
1943.52.23
Division
Asian and Mediterranean Art
Contact
am_asianmediterranean@harvard.edu
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Publication History

Robert W. Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Arthur M. Sackler Foundation and Arthur M. Sackler Museum (Washington, D.C. and Cambridge, Mass., 1987), p. 454, fig. 82.1

Exhibition History

S427: Ancient Chinese Bronzes and Jades, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 10/20/1985 - 04/30/2008

32Q: 1740 Early China I, Harvard Art Museums, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

Google Art Project

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at am_asianmediterranean@harvard.edu