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Category: history (Page 1 of 2)

Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty

Jade suit, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.1. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.. Unlike jade death suits that have been seen here in the past, this one was made for a royal woman.

Jade suit, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.1. Photograph © Nanjing Museum. Unlike jade death suits that have been seen here in the past, this one was made for a woman.

In 210 BCE Shi Huangdi, the “First Emperor” of China, died at the age of forty-nine, likely from poisoning by the very elixirs that were supposed to make him immortal. He was placed in an underground tomb where he would be protected for eternity by thousands of life-sized terra-cotta warriors. In 2013 some of those warriors took a break from their guardian duties to visit San Francisco as part of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition China’s Terracotta Warriors.: The First Emperor’s Legacy.

Above ground, things did not go well for the emperor’s people. Less than four years after his death, his empire collapsed. A new power, based first in Chang’an and later in Luoyang, controlled China. It would be known as the Han dynasty, lending its name to the country’s majority ethnic group. It would endure for more than four hundred years (while the West was dominated by imperial Rome). The new dynasty was marked by economic and technical development, as well as a great cultural flourishing. It too left elaborate tombs full of spectacular and intriguing artifacts. Now a new Asian Art Museum show presents 160 such objects, most never before seen outside China, in Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty (through May 28).

Few fields have advanced as rapidly as the archaeology of ancient China in recent decades. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not many archaeologists were systematically exploring sites in China. This omission began to be remedied in the second half of the twentieth century, resulting in the first major exhibition devoted to the new discoveries, Archaeological Finds of The People’s Republic of China, organized by the U.S. National Gallery and the Nelson Atkins Museum in 1974. Twenty-five years later, the same institutions teamed up on another major exhibition, The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. Since that time there has been an explosion of archaeological activity in China, and scholars are still working on making sense of the ongoing discoveries.

Belt hook in the shape of a dragon, unearthed from Tomb 12, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Silver. Nanjing Museum. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.

Belt hook in the shape of a dragon, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 12, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Silver. Nanjing Museum. Photograph © Nanjing Museum. The two pieces making up this belt hook are inscribed with characters reading “Forget me not.”

Traditional Chinese histories tended to treat the nation’s development as the passing of the mandate of heaven from one monolithic dynasty to another. But the archaeological discoveries have suggested that ancient China was more multiplistic and multicultural than had previously been acknowledged. Chinese culture, to judge from the archaeological finds, did not arise in one place and then spread throughout China so much as it arose in multiple and varied locations, with several regional cultural groups all contributing to the mix.

Under the leadership of director Jay Xu, the Asian Art Museum has intensified efforts to strengthen working relations with sister institutions in China, as well as to keep abreast of the rapidly changing developments in the archaeology of ancient China. (Xu received his doctorate from Princeton University with a specialization in early Chinese art and archaeology.) The objects in this exhibition mostly come from mausoleums excavated in 2011 belonging to the Jiangdu Kingdom at Dayun Mountain, and from royal tombs of the Chu Kingdom at Xuzhou, first uncovered in 1995. They were borrowed from museums in Nanjing, Xuzhou, and Yizheng, all located in Jiangsu province, near Shanghai, where the new archaeological discoveries were made.

Co-curated by Xu and Fan Jeremy Zhang, the museum’s senior associate curator of Chinese art, the exhibition is organized into three areas built around Han-era phrases found on period objects:

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A manuscript of geometric solids

geometric solid from Codex Guelf 74. 1, via Bibliodyssey

This curious image, shamelessly copied from Peacay’s excellent Bibliodyssey, is one of several similar images from a 36-page manuscript said to date from the sixteenth century. The provenance and attribution of this work are a bit mysterious. There was great interest in regular geometric solids during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as it was thought that in them was hidden God’s secret design for the universe. Such thinking derived from the ancient lineage of Pythagoreanism.

One researcher who explored this direction in depth, as described in my 1616: The World in Motion, was Johannes Kepler, who in the early seventeenth century produced this somewhat similar diagram of a “cosmic cup” in which all of the regular solids are embedded together (Kepler persuaded the eastern Habsburg emperor Rudolf to commission royal metal workers to construct such a cup, though the efforts came to nothing):

kepler: planetary solids


The image reproduced at Bibliodyssey is curious for its lack of context and its early date. As a philosophical/mathematical model it is much less rigorous than Kepler’s version and seems as much the result of private symbolism as of mathematics. Some of the images from the manuscript have something of the quality of origami, which is certainly out of the mainstream even of esoterica, so to speak. I would hazard the guess that the author of this work might have been a forerunner of Rosicrucianism (notice the three-dimensional cross in the center of the image, which has some of the vocabulary of alchemy). If I can learn more about the manuscript I will share what I find out.

The Gettysburg PowerPoint

gettysburgh powerpoint slide

As Presidents Day approaches, it is worth recalling one of our nation’s finest moments.


Turkey Day

turkeycock by mansur

North American Turkey, ca. 1612, by Mansur. Victoria and Albert Museum, IM 135-1921.

In honor of Thanksgiving, here’s a painting of an American turkeycock by the great Mughal painter Mansur (from my forthcoming book 1616: The World in Motion). Mansur was the greatest Mughal painter of natural history subjects.

It was an area in which the Mughal emperor, Jahangir, was deeply interested. A world in motion brought to his court many strange and curious creatures, which he invariably directed his painters to document. In 1612, when a large number of birds and animals were brought to his court from Goa, he wrote, “As these animals appeared to me to be very strange, I … ordered that painters should draw them in the Jahangirnama [his reign journal], so that the amazement that arose from hearing of them might be increased.”

Among the birds brought from Goa was this American turkey painted by Mansur. Like Abul Hasan (who painted the cover image of my book), Mansur ranked high in Jahangir’s esteem, and the ruler gave him the title of Nadir-ul-asr, “Unique of the Age.” “In the art of drawing,” he said, Mansur “is unique in his generation.” He ranked him together with Abul Hasan, saying, “In the time of my father’s reign and my own, these two had no third.”

Jahangir was proud of such creatures in his menagerie as flying mice, tailless monkeys, zebras, yaks, cheetahs, West Asian goats, Himalayan pheasants, dodos, ducks, and partridges. He had many of the foreign animals bred in captivity. When he received a strange animal he typically would record a verbal description of it before having its likeness painted. In 1616 he was presented with an Abyssinian elephant, noting that “Its ears are larger than the elephants of this place, and its trunk and tail are longer.” His concern for accuracy and completeness of documentation led to a naturalistic approach to paintings of natural history, of which Mansur was the foremost proponent.

How well do you know the Declaration of Independence?

Find out by taking this quiz.

I scored 9/12 (thanks to some lucky guesses).

Help wanted: Italian painting specialist

quirinal fresco

Help! For the book I’m working on I’m trying to identify the painters of these frescos in the Quirinale (the Italian equivalent of the White House). They depict foreign ambassadors to the Vatican, and I’d also like to identify the ambassadors — but first things first.

quirinale frescos

I’ve consulted several books in both English and Italian but remain uncertain about the attributions. My best guess at this point is that the top two are mainly by Carlo Saraceni, the third one by Agostino Tassi, and the last one perhaps by Giovanni Lanfranco.

quirinale frescos

Among the ambassadors are Robert Sherley, Aliqoli Beg (not entirely sure who that is), Emanuele Ne Vunda, Hasekura Tsunenaga, and Luis Sotelo (the last a Franciscan missionary and not an ambassador per se). Can the Turkish and Persian ambassadors be distinguished by their styles of turbans?

Even if you don’t know the answers to these questions, if anyone can point me in the direction of an obliging Italian painting specialist I could be in touch with about this it would be a great help. Thanks!



When you attempt something ambitious you’re bound to make some mistakes along the way. I’m sure the book I’m working on will have its fair share (recently I realized I had confused the Mughal painters Bichitr and Bishandas). But sometimes a mistake is so stunning that it’s hard to recover from.

I was finding Charles H. Parker’s Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age, 1400-1800 generally interesting and credible. Then I came upon this sentence:

The lack of any indigenous pack animals, except for the llama, and the absence of a wheel meant that humans formed the primary source of portage in Mesoamerican trade.

Probably another reason Mesoamericans depended on humans for portage is that the nearest of their “indigenous” llamas was nearly 2000 miles away in the South American Andes.

This reminds me of a visit to the market in Chichicastenango in Guatemala a few decades ago. The blanket vendors all touted their blankets as pura lana, which means “pure wool.” At the market I met a foolish young Spanish-challenged gringo carrying a blanket he had bought. He’d paid a high price, but it was worth it, he assured me, proudly proclaiming it “pure llama!”


Image from felipe ascencio‘s photostream.

WW2 vets head for DC

This news reports features my dad, who served on Guam. My sister recorded it off the TV and put a frame around it.

Early 20th-century scenes of Paris

Eugène Atget made a number of interesting sets of photos of aspects of Parisian life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France has made a number of them available on the web. This is a detail from a photo of the Cabaret Alexandre, 100 boulevard de Clichy, printed between 1910 and 1912 from a negative taken in 1910. Great stuff! (I love the way the type echoes the form of the doors in this one.) See more here.

A brief history break

original pledge of allegiance

If it [the Pledge of Allegiance] was good enough for the founding fathers, it’s good enough for me. — Sarah Palin

Pop quiz! What historical event is associated with the origin of the Pledge of Allegiance?

  1. The American Revolution, 1775-1783
  2. The Declaration of Independence, 1776
  3. The Constitutional Convention, 1787
  4. The swearing in of George Washington as president, 1789
  5. Attempted secession of southern states, 1860-1861
  6. Lincoln assassination, 1865
  7. World’s Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair), 1892

Answer after the break.

For bonus points, when did we start to print “In God We Trust” on our currency?

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Insert tab A into slot B

How did the order of letters in the Western alphabet get so firmly established that there are more similarities than differences between such languages as Latin (a, b, c), Greek (alpha, beta, gamma), Arabic (alif, b?’, t?), Hebrew (aleph, bet, gimel), and so on? As Jonathan Hoefler at Hoefler & Frere-Jones observes, the order can be traced back 3,500 years to the Ugaritic alpa, beta, gamla.

Part of the answer might lie in the use of letters to indicate the assembly of parts in construction projects. Witness this passage, which Hoefler came across in Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, eds., The World’s Writing Systems, Oxford University Press, 1996

Ancient Near Easterners used fitters’ marks, single letters of the alphabet apparently used to indicate the order in which various building materials are to be assembled. Various decorative ivory pieces from Nimrud, Iraq, were letter-coded to show the order in which they were to be inserted into furniture. In a temple at Petra, Jordan, archaeologists found “large, individually letter-coded, ashlar blocks spread along the floor of [a] room … in the temple structure.” In a 1971 salvage expedition of a ship downed off Marsala, Italy, Honor Frost discovered “letters at key places where wood was to be joined … the ship assembly [was thus] a colossal game of carpentry by letters, like a modern paint-by-numbers project.”


Shown: Artist’s reconstruction of the palace at Nimrud


Vocabularium rerum

vocabularium reurm, a printed book from 1495

An early printed bilingual dictionary, the Vocabularium Rerum provided German readers with the meanings of common Latin words and phrases. This edition (photo from Helga’s Lobster Stew’s photostream) was printed in Venice in 1495. According to HLS, the book can be seen”open to the public in the library at the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry on 16th Street in DC.” The label in the photo says that there are three known copies, the other two being in London and Vienna.

Notice the perfection of the printed book as an information technology — after about 513 years, the data is still perfectly readable. From a book design point of view, observe that the bottom and outside margins are larger than the top and inside margins. On a spread, this holds the facing type areas together; it also provides a place for the reader’s fingers. This page has nice even type color, especially considering the variation in type size.

I hope that label is on acid-free paper! I would not have set it directly on the page.


19th-century printing press

Typographia: An Historical Sketch of the Origin and Progress of the Art of Printing was published in 1825, “Printed for Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy.” The author was Thomas Curson Hansard. The book is now available as a Google scan. Its musty pages contain some information that has been largely forgotten. Here’s a passage offering some insight into the life and character of the typographer William Caslon.

character of william caslon

As you can see, like many nineteenth-century books, this one, despite its topic, is not a good example of the typographic arts.

Is it too technologically difficult or time-consuming for the texts of these public domain books to be rendered by Google as texts rather than graphics? In this respect Project Gutenberg is far superior.

The Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp

the plantin museum, antwerp, belgium

The Plantin-Moretus Museum, located at the Vrijdagmarkt in Antwerp, Belgium, is one of the prime pilgrimage sites for typeheads. It is is the only Renaissance printing office that has survived to the present. It houses some of he world’s oldest surviving printing presses as well as complete sets of early dies and matrices. And it houses an excellent library.

Christoffel Plantin (1520-1589) established himself in Antwerp around 1549 and soon set up a business as a printer. Among his famous projects was a Biblia Polyglotta (Bible in five languages. By 1575 the business had seventy employees. After his death the business passed to his son-in-law Jan I Moretus (1543-1610) and remained in the hands of the Moretus family for centuries. In 1876 the firm and its contents were sold to the city of Antwerp and the Plantin-Moretus Museum was born. In 2005, the museum became the first museum to be listed on the UNESCO World heritage site.

These images were taken in 2004. I’ve done what I can with the them but the camera I had with me at that time was not really up to the conditions in which these photographs were made.

the plantin museum, antwerp, belgium

Text decoration

Since posting is light while I’m traveling, I think it’s time to devote another link to Bibliodyssey, that great ongoing compendium of book arts through the ages. This link is to an anonymous early 16th century Spanish parchment manual featuring examples of text decoration.

early spanish parchment design manuscript

Recommended reading

At Frisco Vista I’ve told the story of the Belgum Sanitarium, which was located in Wildcat Canyon above Richmond on the San Francisco Bay. It’s a romantic little narrative, a bit like something out of Lafcadio Hearn. Usually I save references to my posts elsewhere for my end-of-month roundups, but I hope that some of my rightreading readers might enjoy this melancholy little tale.

Left Abe, Right Abe

left abe lincoln, right abe lincoln

Using life masks of Lincoln owned by the Chicago History Museum, scientists have determined that Abraham Lincoln had an unusually asymmetrical face. Lincoln had a condition called cranial facial microsomia — the left side of his face was much smaller than the right. The results of the study have been widely reported, including in The Independent, in which Leonard Doyle writes:

Lincoln’s contemporaries noted his left eye at times drifted upwards independently of his right eye, a condition now termed strabismus. Lincoln’s smaller, left eye socket may have had a displaced muscle controlling vertical movement, said Dr Ronald Fishman, who led the study published in the Archives of Ophthalmology.

Most people’s faces are asymmetrical, Dr Fishman said, but Lincoln’s case was extreme, with the bony ridge over his left eye rounder and thinner than the right, and set backwards.

So what did I think when I read that?

Right. Fodder for “Left Face, Right Face.”

A Short Guide to Iraq

In 1943 the U.S. War Department produced a book offering guidelines for our soldiers fighting in Iraq. It contained advice such as this:

The tall man in the flowing robe you are going to see soon, with the whiskers and the long hair, is a first-class fighting man, highly skilled in guerilla warfare. Few fighters in any country, in fact, excell him in that kind of situation. If he is your friend, he can be a staunch and valuable ally. If he should happen to be your enemy — look out!


There are also political differences in Iraq that have puzzled diplomats and statesmen. You won’t help matters any by getting mixed up in them.

A pdf version has been posted here.


15th-Century Type

A photoset on flickr (click image to visit). Look at the beautiful even color.

15th-century type

The Cult of the Talking Cross

the spring of the talking crossI’m starting to put up some images from my recent trip to the Yucatan. As part of the project I’m revamping the Maya World section of my site (making it a little more autonomous, on the theory that people who are interested in the Maya aren’t necessarily equally interested in typography or publishing or gardening in the Bay Area or others of my hobby horses). Anyway, the image at left is a picture of the little spring that sustained the rebel community of the Talking Cross, the Maya band that nearly drove the non-Maya from the peninsula during the Caste War in the second half of the 19th century. (The spring is located in present-day Felipe Carrillo Puerto.) The image is part of a page I’ve put up on the Cult of the Talking Cross (the Talking Cross revolt figures in the novel that I’m currently completing).

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