Buckle Ornament

  • Southwest China
  • 2nd - 1st century B.C.
  • Bronze inlaid with malachite
  • H-16.2
Catalogue Entry

These two circular ornaments have excavated counterparts among the burial goods belonging to the local agro-pastoral peoples of the Dian Kingdom, who, during the late Eastern Zhou and Western Han periods, lived on the southwestern periphery of dynastic China in the vicinity of Lake Dian near Kunming in Yunnan province. Sima Qian, the grand historian of China during the Western Han period, described the Dian as "southern barbarians" who had become a tribute state of the Han during the second century B.C.
More than eighty circular buckle ornaments have been recovered from Dian graves at Shizhaishan, Jinning Xian, and some sixty more at Lijiashan in Jiangchuan Xian, Yunnan province.1 The majority of the buckles have been found primarily near the waist of the interred, indicating that they ornamented their owners' belts. This is further confirmed by several figural sculptures from Shizhaishan that show members of the local population wearing such circular buckles on their belts. 2 A few examples found on the chest perhaps were pectoral ornaments.

Buckle number 113 is inlaid with two bands of tiny circular pierced malachite disks separated by a band set with light-beige, round-collared, soft-stone disk fragments. The center is set with a milky white agate button with a raised center that has been highly polished. The inlay appears to be held in place by a black substance that may be lacquer, which is sticky until it hardens. The presence of holes in the stone and the irregular cuts indicate that the stone inlays were reused. The holes are inlaid with malachite discs.

Buckle number 114 is inlaid with a large band of turquoise disks surrounding a smaller band contained within a bronze ridge of turquoise disks and black-lacquer triangles, the latter painted with a red-lacquer fabric design. A red carnelian button set in a red-lacquer circle decorates the center of the buckle ornament.

Both buckles were designed with sunken reserves to accommodate the inlay, and probably were cast by the lost-wax process. On the reverse of each buckle is a heavy horizontal hook that is placed off center. This hook is supported by a strut. A space was formed between the strut and the hook, through which a piece of fabric or leather could have been threaded to secure the plaque's attachment. Such hooks are peculiar to artifacts belonging to the Dian culture.

A microscopic examination of both buckles reveals textile pseudomorphs on the reverse sides. Buckle 113 also has a textile impression in the corrosion that suggests a silk leno weave of a type common among textile found at the Western Han-period Chu site of Mawangdui. The reverse of buckle 114 displays pseudomorphs of two types of cloth, one with a tight weave and another with a looser weave. A rope pattern is also visible around the hook.

It has been suggested that the Dian circular ornaments served as protective amulets for those who wore them. The decoration of many circular buckles ranges from quite simple to very ornate, suggesting that the status, wealth, and power of their owners may also have played a role in their decoration. The reuse of stone ring fragments in number 113 suggests that they were considered valuable in some way and worth preserving. Presumably the owner of this buckle must have been important and the possession and display of the stone ring, even broken, must have had some meaning for both the wearer and those who viewed it on the wearer's belt.

1. Rawson et al. 1983, nos. 206 -9.
2. Ibid., nos. 178-83, 249.

Buckle Ornament