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Group of 6 sancai ceramic figures, excavated from the tomb of General Liu Tingxun. Henan Province, China. Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). 8th century. Sancai ceramic with "three-color" glaze.

Brief IdentificationEdit

According to The British Museum's website, these sancai ceramic figures were excavated from the tomb of General Liu Tingxun in Luoyang, China. The figures date back to 728 CE when the General expired. These are only six of the thirteen figures that were excavated from the burial site. These sancai ceramic figures served as tomb guardians, and also as a symbol for the General's high-ranking social status. [See Dien 1999, 1]

Technical EvaluationEdit

Chinese sancai ware is characterized by its three-color glaze. These sancai ceramic figures are traditional white, green and amber polychrome lead-glazed. The high-fired bodies and low-fired lead glazes of eighth century CE Tang sancai ware was produced in tile kilns. [See Gilmore 2007, 666] According to China Online Museum, a rare and expensive cobalt oxide could be added to the lead-glaze mix to produce a fourth, royal-blue color.

In China, the height of the Silk Road culminated with the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Pottery was transported by way of land routes and maritime trade. Pottery production remained technologically advanced in China given the location of the Chinese in relation to the rest of the world. However, ceramic technology like this was not necesarily uncommon at the time. Sancai ware production was also taking place in the Middle-East around the same time period as the Chinese produced similiar pottery. [See Gilmore 2007, 666]

Thirteen sancai ceramic figures were excavated from the tomb of General Liu Tingxun in Luoyang, China. Upon discovery, the figures were acquired from George Eumorfopoulos in 1936. The figures currently reside at The British Museum in London, Great Britain. These figures are believed to be the largest sancai ware, burial guardians discovered. The tallest figure measures 107.7 cm high, 49 cm wide, and 29 cm deep.

Local Historical ContextEdit

Burial guardians like these sancai ware figures were produced by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). The Tang Dynasty symbolized a period of relative prosperity for the Chinese. [See Dien 1999, 1] The Silk Road was at its height during this time period, so an extremely high volume of goods were imported and exported throughout the region. These goods included Chinese porcelain, pottery, silk, spices, etc. [See Waugh 2010, 9-10]

These particular tomb figures were most likely produced in Henan Province, China around 728 CE according to Lessing Photo Archive. At that time, the majority of people worked as farmers under the equal-field system. However, the object's makers were of the middle-class social status because they were skilled craftsmen. The ceramic craftsmen produced sancai ware pottery as funerary art for the upper-class elites who could afford such pieces. Typically, sancai ware burial guardians were commissioned by the recipient of the artwork. [See Dien 1999, 1]

Within the local culture, funerary art sybolized social status. Pottery that was "intended to accompany the dead to the afterlife" was considered a sign of social status because the pottery pieces were custom made and not available to the masses. [See Forbes 2009, 1] The larger and more colorful pieces signified an even higher social status. Sancai ware figures were highly prized among Chinese elites, whose brick chamber tombs were also a social marker themselves. [See Dien 1999, 1]

World Historical SignificanceEdit

Within the larger scheme of world history, Chinese sancai ware is held as an example of proper burial customs during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Sancai ware production was not rare during the Tang Dynasty, but funerary art was considered a sign of social status in China. The larger and more colorful pieces were reserved for Chinese elites who could afford such elaborate burial arranagements. [See Dien 1999, 1] Aesthetically, sancai ware differs from other examples of earthenware because it is lead-glazed with a mixture of three distinct colors. Traditionally, glazes include white, amber and green. [See Gilmore 2007, 666] However, royal-blue can be included as a fourth color on rare occasions according to China Online Museum.

Chinese and Middle-Eastern pottery was circulated within long-range trade networks such as the Silk Road. Goods were circulated by way of land and water routes during this time period, which signified the height of the Silk Road. [See Waugh 2010, 16] Pottery similiar to Chinese sancai ware was produced in the Middle-East during this same time period. However, such pottery was not used as funerary art like it was in China. [See Gilmore 2007, 666]


  • Iraq Abbasid Ware and Chinese S</li>ancai Ware from UGA Galileo Database


    • Fine China from UGA Galileo Database

    "Fine China." Forbes 184, (September 22, 2009): 22. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2011).

    • Images of Dynasty Article from UGA Galileo Database

    Dien, Albert E. "Images of Dynasty." Archaeology 52, no. 2 (March 1999): 58. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2011).

    • The Silk Roads in History from UGA Galileo Database

    WAUGH, DANIEL C. "THE SILK ROADS IN HISTORY." Expedition 52, no. 3 (Winter2010 2010): 9-22.Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2011).

    • Lessing Photo Archive

    • The British Museum

    • China Online Museum