• China, probably Henan province
  • Erlitou culture
  • about 1700 - 1500 B.C.
  • Bronze,turquoise inlay,traces of wood, cloth/twine
  • H-15 W-8.5
Catalogue Entry

Bronze--a man-made alloy of copper and tin, sometimes with added lead--was such an important metal in early times that it now symbolizes an entire epoch of ancient human history. The alloy helped to change societies all over the world through the advent of sturdy, efficient metal tools and weapons. In China, it also became the favored material for important ritual and ceremonial objects such as this extraordinary plaque. Unlike the bronze weapons, vessels, and bells unearthed with such plaques, the intended function of this rare and appealing object is no longer known.

With four small projecting loops arranged in pairs, the plaque was clearly designed to be attached to something else, which perhaps perished through prolonged burial. The plaque's stunning decorated surface features a symmetrical mask with two round eyes set in oval sockets flanking a long, blunt snout. Above, a crest, neck, or body is patterned with a design resembling overlapping scales. The spaces within the metal frames are filled on the front surface with carefully sized and fitted turquoise chips. On the reverse, the same spots contain remnants of cloth or twine overlaid with traces of wood.

Three similar pieces have been published in Chinese archaeological journals; others are in private and institutional collections.1 All of the scientifically recovered examples were found singly in relatively large, richly furnished tombs in Erlitou, Henan province, the earliest major Chinese Bronze Age site that is datable. Located near the center of each grave, the inlaid plaques were found adjacent to jades, other bronzes, and cowry shells, valued belongings that were apparently placed above the chest of the deceased at burial.
The practice of inlaying bronze with turquoise is extremely rare in the early Chinese Bronze Age.2 None of the weapons or ritual vessels known from Erlitou is similarly embellished. The closest parallel may be the richly inlaid weapons associated with the later Anyang period of the Shang dynasty (about 1300-1050 B.C.). In fact, these halberds and axes, whose purpose is clear, suggest that captivating objects like the Shumei plaque may have had some ceremonial role in the arts of war.3

1. For the three Erlitou examples, found between the second and the final fourth stratum of the site, see Kaogu 1984.1, pp. 37-40; Kaogu 1986.4, pp. 318-23; Kaogu 1992.4, pp. 294-303. For the others see Eskenazi 1991, no. 68; for a more recently published example, see Rogers and Rogers 1996, no. 56.
2. The only related object from Erlitou is a turquoise-inlaid bronze disk measuring nearly 17.8 cm (7 in.) in diameter. Its purpose is as mysterious as that of the Shumei plaque. Authors of the excavation report note that it was wrapped in multiple layers of cloth; see Kaogu 1976.4, pp. 259-63.
3. One well-known example of a turquoise-inlaid ritual vessel--a gong now at the Metropolitan Museum (no. 1985.214.5)--is a rare exception that proves the rule; see Hearn 1987, no. 4. For the turquoise-inlaid weapons see Hayashi 1972.