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HOME : Chinese Art : Neolithic Era : Marble Figure
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Marble Figure - H.512
Origin: China
Circa: 3300 BC to 2050 BC
Dimensions: 15" (38.1cm) high x 5.5" (14.0cm) wide
Catalogue: V17
Collection: Chinese
Medium: Marble


Location: Great Britain
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Description
This piece is a masterpiece from a highly inscrutable time and place – Neolithic China. While the dynastic periods are comparatively well studied and understood, the nature and relationships of the early societies living in agricultural communities between 4000 and 2000 BC are still somewhat nebulous. Even the geography was different. When this piece was made, it was much wetter, with most of Northern China being swamps and marshes, and much of the central area covered in an enormous lake. The climate was warm and moist, rather than the colder, arid China of today. The mountains were well forested and there was a variety of animals. Villages were small and arranged around prime agricultural areas; village structure was based along kinship lines. Most artistic expression was achieved through ceramics, which were often highly ornate and painted. Comparatively little is known of religion, but there are some hints in the iconography of the ceramics. For instance, the 5th millennium BC site of Banpo (near Xi’an) has produced ceramics with fantastical animals, including, significantly, fish with human faces/ masks. These are unlikely to have been a completely secular creation. The oldest religions of East Asia – and indeed the world – are based around a form of animism that bestows spiritual characteristics upon natural phenomena, from mountains to weather systems, and economic staples have enjoyed similar reverence in other parts of the world. It has been theorised that the Banpo people, who lived in a riverine environment, may have revered fish as their main food source and expressed this on their ceramics. It has further been suggested that they even based some form of belief system around fish – perhaps with a magically-trained individual to perform ceremonies that guaranteed prosperity in the forthcoming season, although this is necessarily speculative. Numerous subsequent and contemporary cultures possessed animal effigies, and it has generally been assumed that – due to the expertise and time required to produce them – they must have formed part of some belief system that transcended mere secular diversion. One might speculate that the effort involved in stone carving would exceed that of pottery making, and there is collateral evidence for this in the jade works of the Liangzhu culture (Yangzi delta, 3300-2300 BC), which were almost all zoomorphically decorated works in evidently elite graves (amulets, ornaments, necklaces etc).

The rarity of works such as the current piece argues against personalised ownership, and instead for a wider audience within a substantial community. The identity of the creature portrayed is deliberately ambiguous, as it has a clearly humanoid head with slanted coffee-bean eyes (a marker of extreme antiquity in every continent), a small raised nose connected to the brows, and a small pursed mouth. The surface of the head is covered with indented linear marks possibly indicating hair, while the most forward- pointing part of the piece is what appears to be an ear. This might be challenged on the basis of the rest of the piece, as it has hatching that could be interpreted equally as feathers or fish- scales, making the “ear” a beak or protuberant mouth. The flat side of the piece has elevated sections that could be seen as a tail (if a fish) or furled wings (if a bird). Significantly, the piece has an unadorned back and a plain base, so it was clearly meant to be seen only from the front, or from above. It might then have been mounted into an altar, or been a decorative finial in some other structure made of earth or similar. The texture of the surface indicates that it was worked at using abrasion and small hand tools, so the quantity of work involved must have been immense. Whether a deity of a spirit, this is a truly significant and important masterwork, and an invaluable addition to any serious collection. - (H.512)

 

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