Monday, 5 December 2016

The ancient Asian treasures of two Americans in Paris

Visual arts: The ancient treasures of two Americans in Paris

Montreal has an exhibition of ancient jade, porcelain, fabrics and sculpture that is a world premiere, thanks to a curator who has created exhibitions for the Pointe-À-Callière museum. 
Jean-Paul Desroches, along with museum director Francine Lelièvre, discovered a collection of 5,000 works of Asian art accumulated over half a century by an American couple who have lived in Paris since 1966.
About 450 pieces — the best in the collection, according to Filippo Salviati, a lecturer in Chinese and Korean Art at the University of Rome — are in the exhibition From the Lands of Asia: The Sam and Myrna Myers Collection.
The exhibition is also a testament to how “old school collectors” follow their passions over many years, buying art they love and learning about what they had through study and consultation with scholars and dealers.
“The Myers were discreet collectors,” said Saliviati, who organized an exhibition of the couple’s jade collection in 2000. “No dealers or museum people knew the extent of their collection. ”

Prime minister’s coat (Gyu-lu che), a 17th century Tibetan tapestry. Assembled from different pieces of Chinese fabric, this garment was worn during important ceremonies. According to tradition, it represented the clothing worn by the ancient Tibetan kings who ruled Northwest China under the Xia dynasty (1032–1227). THIERRY OLLIVIER /  SAM AND MYRNA MYERS COLLECTION

The Myers were interested in Greek and Roman antiquity, but soon found themselves drawn to the jades, porcelains and silks of East Asia.
The collection of jade, which Salviati described in an interview as one of the three best private collections in the world, includes ceremonial weapons from Neolithic times — as early as 3300 BCE. The Chinese ascribed magical properties to jade, and dragons made of the material were intermediaries between heaven and earth.

A painted wood Noh actor, from Japan's Momoyama period (1573–1603).
A painted wood Noh actor, from Japan’s Momoyama period (1573–1603).THIERRY OLLIVIER/  SAM AND MYRNA MYERS COLLECTION

Part of the exhibition focuses on Buddhism, and the Myers’ collection starts with 4th-century stone figures from its origins in Northern India, and continues with objects of wood and bronze from China, Tibet, Korea and Japan. There is a marble lion — whose roar could awaken the world to the Buddha’s teaching — from China’s Tang dynasty (618-907) and a life-size painted wood Bodhisattva about 900 years old.
Another section of the exhibition is devoted to costumes from the 16thto the 19th centuries, a basis for the Myers’ education about the customs of societies throughout Asia. Silk fabrics reflected the wearer’s wealth and social status in China, and the colour and decoration changed from dynasty to dynasty. There are kimonos from Japan, samurai tunics that fit over armour, and the flamboyantly colourful garments of Uzbek traders.
There is also a large collection tracing the development of porcelain over 500 years, much of it recovered from shipwrecks. Some of the pieces were underwater for centuries, yet have retained their lustre.
Sam Myers recalled in an interview being frustrated by the breadth of the subject: “What makes this porcelain an object of the 17th century rather than the 19th?

A polychromed wood sculpture of Bodhisattva from China's Song dynasty, circa 1125. This divinity is associated with compassion and mercy. Artists from this time were expressing the body's sensuality while at the same time renouncing worldly things.
A polychromed wood sculpture of Bodhisattva from China’s Song dynasty, circa 1125. This divinity is associated with compassion and mercy. Artists from this time were expressing the body’s sensuality while at the same time renouncing worldly things. THIERRY OLLIVIER /  SAM AND MYRNA MYERS COLLECTION

“It took two years to learn the difference between blue and white porcelain,” he said. “Then you go beyond that, to the 12th to 15thcenturies. It’s a continual learning process, the experience of which is what makes collecting enjoyable.”
After they purchased their first pieces, Myrna Myers went to the École du Louvre as a student, where she met Desroches, curator of this exhibition.
“After they bought, they learned about it,” Salviati said. “They had the eyes of collectors; they could recognize quality and then they refined their knowledge.
“Shopping is the easy way to buy,” he said. “You just need money. The Myers had limited means and when the price was too high, they just walked away.”
The Myers sought advice from scholars as they continued to collect, Salviati said. “Old-school collectors cultivated relationships with scholars and dealers. This is the first time they have shared their passion with a much larger audience.”
Salviati noted that many museum shows serve to generate interest for a future auction: “Not this show. The Myers live with their art.”
“We can appreciate the beauty of much art, but we didn’t buy anything we didn’t want to live with,” Sam Myers said. “That’s true of everything we acquired.”
Myers said the movers were in his house for two weeks packing objects.

A porcelain kendi in the form of a phoenix, 16th century China. This phoenix kendi is especially remarkable because it is a rare combination of function and mystery, a kind of hybrid beast for which China has been known since Antiquity.
A porcelain kendi in the form of a phoenix, 16th century China. This phoenix kendi is especially remarkable because it is a rare combination of function and mystery, a kind of hybrid beast for which China has been known since Antiquity. THIERRY OLLIVIER /  SAM AND MYRNA MYERS COLLECTION

“I saw the empty spaces and felt bad, so the exhibition will travel no more than two years,” he said. “I am a lawyer, but I have one law book on my bookshelves. The rest is about art, and the row of porcelain objects on the top shelf is no longer there.”
When you search for quality, the value will rise over 50 years, not five months, Salviati said. The Myers acquired objects that would cost millions today. 
“Acquiring an object always begins with our reaction to it,” Sam Myers said. “You feel the mystery, the beauty and the power in the piece.”
From the Lands of Asia: The Sam and Myrna Myers Collection continues to March 19, 2017 at Pointe-à-Callière, the Montreal Archeology and History Complex, 350 Place Royale. More information:

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Susan Whitfield Lecture: “Beyond Scrolls and Codices: Manuscript Formats on the Eastern Silk Road”

This Mellon Sawyer seminar is an interdisciplinary collaboration dedicated to mapping cultural exchanges across Eurasia from roughly 400-1450 CE, by focusing on the development, distribution and sharing of manuscript technologies.

Schedule of Public Lectures

Mellon Sawyer lectures are open to the public and will take place on the University of Iowa campus, Iowa City. Note that UCC refers to University Capitol Center and IMU refers to the Iowa Memorial Union.

Friday 2 December 2016 – 8:30am-4:45pm / 166 IMU Iowa Theater (Iowa Memorial Union)
William Johnson
Classical Studies, Duke University
“From Bookroll to Codex”
This talk will, first, offer an overview of the literary bookroll in ancient Greece and Rome, with deep dives into how technical details of form interact with production (writers, scribes) and consumption (readers, society). That overview will be foundational for the second part of the lecture, in which we will turn to the much discussed issue of the transition from bookroll to codex. There too an overview will be offered— with, however, a focus not so much on the question of “why?” but on what this transition might  say about instability and changes in the larger cultural matrix, and, more specifically, how this shift in the idea of the book might relate to changing attitudes towards authorship and writing practices on the one hand, and use and reading practices on the other.

Susan Whitfield
Director, International Dunhuang Project, British Library
“Beyond Scrolls and Codices: Manuscript Formats on the Eastern Silk Road”
Manuscripts in the tens of thousand have been excavated from first millennium AD sites of the eastern Silk Road. On various local media — birchbark, wood, palm leaf, silk, paper and others — and in over twenty languages and scripts, they reflect the diversity of the cultures in this period and place. This paper introduces the range of manuscript formats, materials, languages and scripts, and discuss their diffusion along the Silk Road. It also considers the lack of diffusion of some unique formats used in specific contexts and only found for relatively brief periods.

Marina Rustow
Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East, Princeton University
“Fatimid State Documents, Serial Recyclers and the Cairo Geniza”Among the many unexpected finds the Cairo Geniza has yielded are hundreds—possibly thousands—of medieval documents of state in Arabic script. Among these are decrees, rescripts, petitions, tax receipts and fiscal accounts from period of the Fatimid caliphs in Egypt and Syria (969–1171). Most of these Fatimid state documents were reused for Hebrew-script texts, hence their survival in the discarded manuscript chamber of a medieval Egyptian synagogue. In most cases, we can only speculate on the path they took from the government offices where they were produced to the synagogue where they were preserved. Nonetheless—and perhaps paradoxically given that they did not survive in an archive—they offer glimpses of the complexity and sophistication of medieval Middle Eastern techniques of archiving and deacquisition, as well as informal scribal habits in one of the largest and best documented Jewish communities of the Middle Ages.

Myriam Krutzsch
Aegyptisches Museum, Berlin
“Papyrus as an Ancient Writing Material: Its Structure, Production and Classification”
This lecture touches on the history of  ancient Egyptian papyrus, its production and use as a writing material. The structure of the papyrus sheet is explained, from the source materials [fibers, leaf shapes] to the making the papyrus roll. Special emphasis is focused on the diverse typology and classification of sheet joins, the places where individual papyrus sheets are connected to form a roll or scroll. Knowledge of these typologies not only gives us insight into ancient production technologies, but also can be used as a valuable tool for determining previously uncertain provenance and dating.

Mark Barnard
Senior Conservator Emeritus, British Library
“The Dunhuang Diamond Sutra of AD 868: A Conservation Approach That Goes Back to the Original”The Diamond Sutra of AD 868 is the world’s earliest dated printed ‘book’. This paper scroll was one of 6,000 items that came from Dunhuang’s cave 17 during Marc Aurel Stein’s 2nd expedition of 1911 to Western China. Brought back to the British Museum, London in 1914 its importance was soon recognized as it was put on display in 1914 along with other treasures from Dunhuang. From early images, its condition looked poor, with heavy staining and paper loss. It had also been repaired in antiquity. We believe that it had been restored up to three times before by 1972 when it was transferred to the New British Library. This presentation will chart a 20-year conservation project that involved ground-breaking research and a fundamental reassessment of traditional East Asian scroll mounting, and developed a new approach to the conversation about and preservation of the Dunhuang archive.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Terracotta Warriors: An Army for the Afterlife

Terracotta Warriors: An Army for the Afterlife
Thousands of terracotta warriors guard the tomb of the first emperor of China.
Credit: meanmachine77 /

Chinese workers digging a well in 1974 made a startling discovery: thousands of life-size terracotta figures of an army prepared for battle. Now called the Terracotta Army or Terracotta Warriors, the figures are located in three pits near the city of Xi'an in China's Shaanxi province. After the warriors were discovered, the site became a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. 
The pits are situated less than one mile to the northeast of a pyramid-shaped mausoleum constructed for the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259 B.C. – 210 B.C.). According to UNESCO World Heritage Center, archaeologists suspect that the unexcavated tomb could contain an entire replica of the city of Xi'an, which the warriors guard. The three pits (a fourth pit was unfinished) contain an estimated 8,000 life-size terracotta figures of which about 2,000 have been excavated. The figures were created to serve the emperor in the afterlife and include a mix of chariots, cavalry, armored soldiers and archers. There are high-ranking officers (including nine generals found so far) and one of the pits, No. 3, actually served as a command post for the army and contains an honor guard and ornate chariot for the force's chief commander. All three pits are active archaeological sites and visitors can see excavations taking place. [Gallery: Ancient Chinese Warriors Protect Secret Tomb]
The details of the warriors are so intricate and individualized that it has been hypothesized that they were based on real soldiers who served in the emperor's army. Each warrior has uniquely styled hair and features; some have topknots while others have goatees; some have caps and loose tunics while others have armored vests and braided hair. They have different builds, expressions and postures. Another key feature is that the warriors were decorated in bright colors, which contributed to the individuation. New conservation techniques, performed on recently excavated figures, allow some of these patterns to be discerned. Every warrior contains a stamp of the name of the foreman in charge of his creation, so that mistakes could be tracked, according to the Field Museum
Curiously, when the emperor created this army he had it face east, not toward the frontiers of his empire but rather toward the territories he had already taken. Why he did this is a mystery, it could be because of the topography around his mausoleum or it could because he felt the real threat came from the lands he had conquered.

An army of clay warriors guards the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BC. The tomb is still under excavation near Xi'an, China.
An army of clay warriors guards the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BC. The tomb is still under excavation near Xi'an, China.
Credit: Clara Moskowitz/LiveScience 

His birth name was Ying Zheng and he was born at a time when China was divided into a number of warring states. One of these states, named Qin, was located in the western portion of ancient China and had been expanding for some time. 
An army of clay warriors guards the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BC. The tomb is still under excavation near Xi'an, China.
When Zheng's father, King Zhuangxiang, died in 246 B.C., Zheng took the throne at the age of 13. Over the next three decades he initiated a series of military campaigns that would see Qin conquer the other states and unify China for the first time. After the unification was complete in 221 B.C., Zheng took on the title of Qin Shi Huang which means, in essence, the "First Emperor of Qin." After his death in 210 B.C., his dynasty quickly collapsed with a new group of rulers known as the "Han Dynasty" coming to power.
According to the Field Museum, Qin Shi Huang spent a significant portion of his rule preparing for the afterlife, and even began construction of his mausoleum before he was coronated. It is estimated that the terracotta warriors themselves took more than 10 years to complete. 
In this ensuing period, the emperor's terracotta army may not have been looked upon kindly. Archaeologist Yuan Zhongyi writes in his book "China's Terracotta Army and the First Emperor's Mausoleum" (Homa and Sekey, 2011) that pit two was "partially burnt down," possibly by a rebel army that arose shortly after the first emperor's death.
Another researcher, Chen Shen, curator of a massive Terracotta Warriors show that appeared recently in New York, notes that historical records are silent about the warriors. Sima Qian, a Han Dynasty historian who lived about a century after the first emperor's time, doesn't talk about the warriors despite covering 3,000 years of Chinese history in his "Shiji" (Records of the Grand Historian). That could be because he didn't want to highlight the first emperor's achievement.
"Because the historian served an emperor whose ancestors overthrew the First Emperor's brief dynasty, he had to be conscious of presenting the past in a way that would not distress his ruler with unflattering comparisons," Shen writes in his exhibition book "The Warrior Emperor and China's Terracotta Army" (Royal Ontario Museum Press, 2010).
Indeed while terracotta figures were made by later Chinese rulers, none of them attempted to produce a large army of life-sized figures ever again.
Pit One, the largest pit, is rectangular and covers 14,000 square meters (150,000 square feet) of space, the size of almost three football fields.
"The floor of the passage ways and the surrounding corridors is paved with grey bricks. The roof is supported by thick and sturdy wood blocks, one closely next to another, on which is covered with mats, and upon that loess [a sediment]," writes Zhongyi in his book.
The portions excavated so far are filled with warriors. A map that University of London researcher Lucas Nickel published in his book "First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army" (British Museum Press, 2007) illustrates their formation.
At the front of Pit One is a vanguard of un-armored standing archers, three rows deep, which Zhongyi writes were mainly equipped with bow and arrows. Behind them, separated by earthen mounds, are 11 straight lines of figures, many of them armored warriors who would have been equipped with melee weapons such as the halberd. Interspersed with these armored warriors are war chariots that were made of wood (now decayed) with four terracotta horses each. Each of these chariots has a driver (wearing extra-long armor for protection) along with two warriors armed with either melee weapons or bows.
Zhongyi writes that this arrangement of a fast-moving vanguard, equipped with long-range weapons, which in turn is followed by a heavier force, is not an accident. He points out that the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in his book the "Art of War" that the "the tip (vanguard) must be hard-hitting while the body must be overwhelming," a lesson the first emperor appears to have applied in the afterlife.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang was buried with everything he needed for the afterlife, including an army complete with life-size clay horses.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang was buried with everything he needed for the afterlife, including an army complete with life-size clay horses.
Credit: Clara Moskowitz/LiveScience 

Pit Two is located just to the north of Pit One and is about half its size and roughly square (with a bulging area in the northeast where the force's vanguard is located).
Emperor Qin Shi Huang was buried with everything he needed for the afterlife, including an army complete with life-size clay horses.
Like Pit One, its vanguard is made up largely of archers, in this case mainly carrying crossbows (again the wooden part is decayed). The figures in the front rows are un-armored and standing up, while the ones behind are kneeling. Again this is no accident, as Zhongyi points out that it takes time for an archer to load a new bolt for his crossbow. By having one line firing, and another kneeling to reload, a steady stream of fire could be kept up on the enemy.
The main force of Pit Two, the part meant to overwhelm the enemy, includes about 80 war chariots. Each has two riders and a charioteer and there are also some armored troops, equipped with melee weapons, intermixed.
Newly introduced in Pit Two is a squadron of cavalry. Located in the northwest of the pit, the saddled horses are male, life-size and each carries a rider. Zhongyi notes the armor of the riders stops short of the waist, that way "the lap won't touch the horse when the rider is seated." The riders would have been equipped with both bows and melee weapons.
At the front of the horse squadron are six "assistant chariots," as Zhongyi calls them. They have a charioteer with only one warrior, the empty space reserved for an officer.

Thousands of terracotta warriors guard the tomb of the first emperor of China.
Thousands of terracotta warriors guard the tomb of the first emperor of China.
Credit: meanmachine77 /

 Pit Three: Command post
By far the smallest of the pits is Pit Three, used as a command post. It has an honor guard consisting of armored warriors holding long poles. At center is a grand command chariot manned by four warriors (including a charioteer). The "beautifully painted vehicle body was crowned by a round ornamented canopy indicating that this chariot had a special function," Lucas Nickel writes. "It may have been designed to carry the commander of the army."
The army commander is not included among the terracotta figures and researchers do not know his identity. One possibility is that the commander is no less than the emperor himself, who still lies buried in his tomb.
Non-military terracotta figures have been discovered in other pits. Like the army, they were meant for the afterlife and include terracotta civil servants, equipped with knives and bamboo tablets for writing, and even a group of terracotta acrobats meant for entertainment.
"According to the way they [the acrobats] perform we speculate they are not indigenous to central China, but probably come from the south — probably the Burma area," said archaeologist Duan Qingbo, who was in charge of excavations at the Terracotta Army pits, in translated comments that appeared in "The Independent" (UK).
For the first emperor's afterlife, nothing was spared. He had a large army in proper military formation and even entertainment brought in from afar.
For decades, archaeologists have pondered the techniques ancient artisans used to make thousands of individualized warriors in a relatively short period of time. According to National Geographic, some have suspected that a single artisan produced each warrior; others hold that the individualized faces were achieved by attaching a unique mix of pre-determined ears, noses, mouths, etc. to the heads, a la Mr. Potato Head. One recent theory suggests that they were inspired by Greek sculpture techniques they learned from travelers on the Silk Road, according to New Historian. Still others hypothesize that the warriors were created on an assembly line of convicts and conscripts. In this model, according to the Field Museum, workers used molds for the body parts and heads, adding individual flourishes before sending the sculpture into the kiln. At least 10 different head molds have been identified.
In 2014, a group of researchers at University College London analyzed 30 ears from the warriors to determine how different they were from each other. They theorized that if the warriors were supposed to portray real people, they should have distinct ears (forensic scientists can use ear-shapes to identify people, similarly to fingerprints). According to Smithsonian Magazine, no two ears analyzed were alike, though thousands more need to be assessed before archaeologists draw any specific conclusions. But it supports the theory that the warriors were based on a real army. 
The warriors are even more impressive when you consider that they are just one small part of Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum. Scientists have used remote sensing, core sampling and radar to discover that the tomb complex is almost 38 square miles (98 square kilometers). They suspect it contains a replica of the city of Xi'an, as well as its rivers and streams. In addition to clay inhabitants — warriors, acrobats, etc. — thousands of real people were also buried with their emperor. Many were craftsman and convicts who died building the mausoleum. Hundreds of concubines were also buried there, possibly to accompany their emperor to the afterlife, or possibly as part of an elaborate court intrigue, according to National Geographic
Sima Qian's writings describe the contents of the tomb complex: "The tomb was filled with models of palaces, pavilions and offices as well as fine vessels, precious stones and rarities." Rivers and streams were made of mercury, hills and mountains of bronze, and precious stones represented the sun, moon, and stars. According to National Geographic, tests on the dirt at the tomb reveal high levels of mercury, supporting Sima Qian's description. 
But we may never know for sure what lies beneath the tomb. Sima Qian warned that it was booby trapped, and modern archaeologists are kept away by the risk of damaging the site. Some artifacts could disintegrate rapidly if the tombs were opened. 
Additional reporting by Live Science Contributor Jessie Szalay, who toured the site in 2016.
Additional resources

Lecture: Achaemenid and Sassanian themes in Qajar tilework and related themes

27 November 2016
Friday 2 December at 5.30 at the AIIT: Jennifer Scarce (University of Dundee): "Qajar nostalgia: Achaemenid and Sassanian themes in Qajar tilework and related themes"

Iran has always been aware of her pre- Islamic past and its impressive pictorial record. The dramatic rock and stone sculptured reliefs of the Achaemenids, Parthians and Sassanids spanning the 6th century B.C. to the 7th century A.D. are permanent evidence of the achievements of the rulers, their courts and occupations. Later the Sassanian rulers, as transformed into romantic heroes in the Shahnameh of Ferdausi, the Iranian national epic are portrayed in various media such as painted ceramics and manuscripts illustrations from the 13th century onwards.
The Qajar shahs of the 19th century were well aware of the glorious past which they interpreted through a revival of monumental rock sculptures which, for example, depicted Fath Ali Shah (1797-1834) in the guise of a Sassanian ruler and later through the medium of glazed tilework of the late 19th century which concentrated on narrative panels inspired by the Achaemenid imagery of Persepolis.

This lecture will survey and analyse the main themes of this Qajar revival in terms of the choice of images and the techniques used to illustrate them including polychrome tilework, and the innovations of lithography and photography.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

New discoveries unearthed at Terracotta Warriors site

By Bi Nan | | Updated: 2016-11-25

New discoveries unearthed at Terracotta Warriors site
Emperor Qinshihuang's mausoleum [File Photo]
Stone helmets, armor and the remains of thousands of animals and relics related to animals are among the latest archaeological finds at Emperor Qinshihuang's mausoleum in Shaanxi province, according to
The items were found in excavations at the celebrated site, which is home to China's iconic Terracotta Warriors.
More than 400 pits, stone helmets and armor discovered
Zhou Tie, the head engineer of the Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum, said that during a recent excavation, the archaeological team learned the general structure of the mausoleum and a large number of pits were discovered. More than 400 pits were found in the mausoleum and dozens of small pits and tombs were found around the site.
A large number of stone helmets and armor were found surrounding the mausoleum.. Experts believe these were not used in actual war, but their real function still needs to be researched.
New discoveries unearthed at Terracotta Warriors site
Terracotta warriors and horses in the Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum [File Photo]
An "animal world" discovered in the mausoleum
Ancient people of the time used animals as burial objects and the emperor's mausoleum was no exception.
The new archaeological findings reveal that thousands of animal-related relics have been found in the mausoleum; that makes it the tomb in China with the most animal species so far.
"Different animal species were unearthed in Emperor Qinshihuang's mausoleum, including real animals and those made of pottery or iron," Wu Lina, from Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum said. During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) people gradually grasped animals' habits and learned the skills necessary to raise and train them to some extent.
According to preliminary statistics, the most unearthed animal in the mausoleum is horse. Horses come in many forms: pottery, copper, horse bones unearthed from stable pits. Other animals unearthed include rare birds and beasts and water fowl. Yet to be identified are animal bones.
Wu Lina said that after years of excavation, the animals unearthed from the mausoleum include deer, muntjac deer, figures of copper fowl, such as cranes, swans and swan goose, plus the bones of sheep, chicken, fish and turtles, as well as shellfish ornaments.
Animal and human beings have existed side by side since ancient times, and the concept of biodiversity should be advocated even vigorously nowadays, Hou Ningbin, the museum's head, said.
New discoveries unearthed at Terracotta Warriors site
A stable pit at the Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum [Photo/]