Pair of Belt Plaques

  • North China
  • 2nd - 1st century B.C.
  • Gilt bronze
  • H-5.3 W-10.9
Catalogue Entry

Compositions showing confronted camels were very popular with the Xiongnu. Several versions of this composition have been excavated at burial sites at Xichagou, Xifeng Xian, Liaoning province,1 and at Daodunzi, Tongxin Xian, Ningxia,2 sites that have been dated numismatically to the second century B.C. and are associated with the Xiongnu, who raised camels as well as cattle, sheep, and horses.3

Two confronted Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus) flanking a tree decorate each of these two gilt-bronze openwork plaques. The whole openwork design is framed with a pattern that imitates braided rope. The plaques were cast by the lost-wax process from wax models formed in a mold, and the models contained the perforations in the design. The two plaques are very similar but not identical, indicating that details were done on the individual wax models. The back of each plaque has two vertical attachment loops.

An openwork plaque with a similar but later camel design in the Arthur M. Sackler collections has a rectangular piece of soft wood that was used to back the plaque, and retains an impression of its design in the wood.4 Several excavated examples have also been found with backing of some type.5 Such a backing for an openwork plaque seems contradictory, unless one considers the possibility that the ends of a belt made of brightly colored fabric were inserted in between the plaque and the backing to produce a colorful design that was a cheap imitation of appliqu馘 felt or a gold plaque inlaid with semiprecious stones, both of which were popular among the northern pastoral neighbors of the Han Chinese. The presence of fibers and cloth pseudomorphs embedded in the corrosion on the backs of the Shumei plaques would tend to confirm this possibility.

1. Wenwu 1960.8-9, p. 33, no. 3.
2. Kaogu xuebao 1988.3, p. 344, fig. 9.5
3. So and Bunker 1995, p. 62.
4. Bunker et al. forthcoming, p. 216, no. 233.
5. Miniaev 1995, p. 45.