John Vincent Bellezza
The Prehistoric collection of the Tibet Museum in Lhasa – Part Two
Welcome, as Flight of the Khyung continues with a bird’s eye view of the Tibet Museum and its prehistoric collection of artifacts. This month’s feature peruses the ceramics and metal objects on view at Tibet’s premier cultural museum. So without further ado, let us fly away to a remote period in Tibetan history.
An Introduction to the Neolithic Ceramics of Kharub
The most extensive ceramic assemblage from Neolithic Tibet discovered to date comes from Kharub (Kha-rub), where approximately 20,000 vessels and shards of pottery were documented. These ceramics were recovered from deposits with a fairly secure chronology, and have been dated to circa 3300 to 2000 BCE.
The stone tools and ceramics of Kharub share a few stylistic and technical affinities with those of Neolithic cultures from the Yellow River basin, particularly the Yangshao culture (circa 4800–3000 BCE) and Majiayao culture (circa 3800–2000 BCE). There are also faint similarities between the ceramics of Kharub and pre-Harappan sites such as Kunal, Haryana. Nonetheless, the Neolithic ceramic vessels from the upper Yellow River valley, Sichuan basin and northern Indo-Gangetic plains form distinctive classes of material objects, which are different in character to those of Kharub.
When considered together, the attributes (petrological properties, characteristic forms, and decorative features) of the Kharub ceramics constitute a distinctive class of material culture. The ceramic tradition of Kharub belongs most closely to the remains of Neolithic cultures found in the central and northeastern portions of the Tibetan plateau.
Thus, even 4000 or 5000 years ago, the cultural differentiation of the Tibetan plateau from surrounding regions was already well underway. Evidence from the ceramic assemblages and other material supporting evidence from the Plateau make it permissible to speak of the Tibetan Neolithic or Neolithic cultures of Tibet.
The majority of Kharub pottery is composed of unglazed coarse yellowish-brown ware and red ware. Surface decorations include cord-marked, incised, stamped and punctated geometric designs, as well as some appliqué work. These types of decorations were created when the vessels were in their green or unfired state.
The ceramics of Kharub (figs. 52–67) were hand-worked by wrapping coils of kneaded clay around in circles, and placing one on top of the other to produce the desired shape of a vessel. The coils of clay were then melded by pinching and probably with a paddle or scrapper. A paddle and anvil must have been used to thin the walls of some vessels. The vessels of Kharub are classed as earthenware (a softer, more porous type of ceramic). They were pit-fired (open-fired) using wood and animal dung as fuel. Thus the vessels were fired at relatively low temperatures (around 700–900° C), using fairly low quality clays. A more comprehensive analysis of the chemical composition of these ceramics would help in better understanding the precise temperatures involved in firing. This in turn would furnish clearer insights into the methods of production.
Most of the ceramic vessels discovered in Kharub were used for various domestic functions. It is also possible that certain vessels may have had funerary ritual functions. As the relational analysis (stratigraphic and planar) of materials excavated at Kharub was not fully completed, potential information on cultural and economic patterns and processes underpinning the settlement over time has not been forthcoming. There is still much work to do if Kharub and other Neolithic sites in Chamdo are to yield a more clearly defined picture of prehistory in Eastern Tibet.
A Photographic Gallery of Neolithic Ceramics from Kharub in the Tibet Museum Collection
In the captions of photographs shown below, I supplement the basic information provided in the Tibet Museum displays of artifacts with my own descriptions. The trilingual museum labels (in Tibetan, Chinese and English) are usually restricted to location, type of object and age. My comments and observations are also sometimes appended below the captions.
The black patches visible on the vessel may possibly be ‘fire clouds’, which form when a ceramic comes into contact with unburnt fuel after a fire is smothered, in order to darken the color of the fabric.
According to the museum label, this vessel was sand-tempered. From a visual appraisal of this ceramic alone, it cannot be determined whether opening materials were actually added to the clay before firing.
An Introduction to Neolithic Ceramics from Chugong
We will now examine the ceramics from Chugong (Chu-gong), a site on the northern edge of the Lhasa valley. The first major period of pottery from Chugong dates to the late phase of the Neolithic, circa 2000 to 1500 BCE.
The late Neolithic pottery of Chugong (figs. 68–83) belongs to a more mature or advanced stage in the development of ceramics on the Tibetan plateau than does the assemblage from Kharub. The Chugong site is believed to be 500–1800 years more recent, and a number of technological refinements took place during that time. The late Neolithic ceramics tradition of Chugong did not appear in a vacuum: centuries of more primitive pottery production (such as the Kharub type) are likely to underpin it. However, sites from the early and middle phases of the Neolithic are not yet well documented in Central Tibet.
The late Neolithic ceramics found at Chugong are characterized by finer fabrics, refined forms, building on a wheel (some are also hand worked), burnishing, and adeptly made lug handles. The pottery tradition of Chugong is dominated by red ware and dark-gray ware.
The finer fabric ceramics from Chugong are, in part, a result of firing at higher temperatures than those used to produce the Kharub vessels. This indicates that kilns were employed rather than open pits for firing. Kilns allow clay to be heated slowly at first, gradually eliminating water, thus reducing the chance for fire spalls and the bursting of vessels. The use of kilns also helps reduce the risk of dunting or the formation of cracks from the too rapid cooling of a finished vessel.
Many of the vessels at Chugong were burnished, a polishing process that takes place after the greenware or unbaked clay has dried to the consistency of hardened leather. After firing, burnished ceramics will have a glossy, smooth and hard surface and may be more water-proof. Typically, a smooth pebble or potsherd is used to burnish pottery. The telltale marks of burnishing are a variable luster and polishing marks left behind on the surface of the vessel.
A Photographic Gallery of Neolithic Ceramics from Chugong in the Tibet Museum Collection
An Introduction to Later Ceramics from Chugong
In the Tibet Museum’s prehistoric collection there are also a number of ceramic vessels attributed to the highly inclusive “pre-Tubo period”. Chinese archaeologists and historians use the term “Tubo” to refer the Tibetan Imperial period (circa 650–850 CE). The term “pre-Tubo” in Tibetan is translated by the museum as “Tsenpoi Gyalrab” (Btsan-po’i rgyal-rab), which denotes the dynasty of Central Tibetan kings (btsan-po) and therefore can be dated to circa 100 BCE to 650 CE.
In my writings, I refer to this era of pre-Imperial Tibetan (Spu-rgyal bod) rulers as the “Protohistoric period”, because of its ample coverage in later Tibetan literature, the occurrence of epigraphs on the western margin of the Tibetan plateau in this period, legends of a system of writing in the Zhang Zhung kingdom, and the possible prealphabetical usage of the letter A as a magic symbol or cipher.
In practical terms, the Chinese term “pre-Tubo” does not always synchronize with the Tibetan “Tsenpoi Gyalrab”. “Pre-Tubo” is sometimes used as a more inclusive measure of time, anytime, in fact, between 1100 BCE and 650 CE. The first half of this huge span of time is also called the “Metal Age” by Chinese archaeologists. In more conventional terms, “pre-Tubo” can potentially include the Late Bronze Age (circa 1100–900), Early Iron Age (circa 900–600 BCE), Iron Age (circa 600–100 BCE), and Protohistoric period (circa 100 BCE to 600 CE).
The information provided in the exhibits of the Tibet Museum (as well as in many Chinese archaeological publications does not specify how the label “pre-Tubo” is being used in a particular archaeological context. That such an expansive chronological purview can be denoted by the term is indicative of a black hole that remains in the study of archaeology in Tibet. Many artifacts in the TAR were recovered with few if any scientific controls, as a kind of sanctioned treasure hunting or salvage operation. While it is laudable that many cultural relics were spared from destruction in this way, much potential scientific information has been lost.
Chugong is a good case in point: when researchers from the TAR Bureau of Cultural Relics and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences first visited the site in the 1980s, it was already heavily disturbed by erosion, as well as by excavations carried out to collect earth and gravel for construction projects. Chugong has also been plagued by illegal treasure hunting. Around half of the estimated one-hectare site remains poorly studied by archaeologists. Around three dozen tombs were discovered in close proximity to the residential remains of Chugong. Unfortunately, it has not been determined which of these tombs might date to the Neolithic and which ones belong to the Bronze Age and other less remote periods in Tibetan history. This muddling of the archaeological record has been repeated at many other sites in the TAR.
At this time, I am able to offer few insights into the chronology of “pre-Tubo” ceramics from Chugong and other sites in Tibet. In the captions below, I simply gloss these objects “pre-Imperial period”. It is of course imperative that a typology of the different groups of ceramics in Tibet is assembled in a consistent and verifiable manner. This will require more systematic archaeological exploration and the establishment of firm chronological signposts by which ceramic types and their specific attributes can be assessed.
The so-called pre-Tubo ceramics from the highly disturbed Chugong site (figs. 84–92) are a fairly diverse group and appear to represent different periods of production. These unglazed, mostly red ware ceramics are characterized by simple forms and an absence of decoration. These utilitarian vessels were probably used mainly for the storage of foodstuffs, cooking and dining. In most instances, they are more crudely made than the late Neolithic ceramics of Chugong. Many of the pre-Imperial examples have coarser textures and are irregularly walled. This suggests that these vessels may have been manufactured on a larger scale than the earlier assemblage. Also, the wider range of “pre-Tubo” (pre-Imperial) forms seems to point to a more diversified technological regime and social environment than those prevailing in the late Neolithic.
A Photographic Gallery of Later Ceramics from Chugong in the Tibet Museum Collection
A Photographic Gallery of pre-Imperial Period Ceramics from Other Regions in the Tibet Museum collection
The ceramics in this section belong to five different sites spanning the eastern, central and western portions of the TAR. A variety of vessels and one sculpture are depicted here (figs. 94–108). These ceramics are likely to date to various time periods. As explained above, such objects are all lumped together under the label “pre-Tubo (pre-Imperial) period”. Ceramics discovered by Chinese and Tibetan archaeologists at a number of different cemeteries in Tsang and Ngari (Western Tibet) are not exhibited in the Tibet Museum.
According to the English description on the label accompanying the ceramic jar, the tomb is described as “Xiangbei”. This seems to refer to the Xianbei, a Mongolic people who formed a large state in the early first millennium CE. This state had interactions with the Tuyuhun and Chiang tribes on the northeastern edge of Tibet. Cist tombs of the “steppe type” are reported to have been discovered in Kham. However, the vessel recovered from this tomb is of a type with clear Tibetan precedents. Other specimens carrying the same geographic and cultural attribution (figs. 96–100) form a distinctive group of ceramics, distinguished by very large strap handles attached high up on the vessel.
This amphora shares affinities in form, fabric and decorative treatment with ceramics from Guge, dating to the Iron Age (600–100 BCE) and Protohistoric period (100 BCE to 650 CE). Cord-marked and other types of impressions function variously to keep a paddle from sticking to surface of a green vessel, for increased structural strength, for gripping during use, and to create more surface area for intensification of heat transfer when used for cooking.
For a couple examples of Protohistoric period ceramics from Gurgyam, see the October 2010 Flight of the Khyung. Also see figs. 106, 107 infra. A more detailed study of ancient Western Tibetan ceramics will form another issue of Flight of the Khyung.
Supplement added March 2016: Reportedly, this is actually a dough figure unearthed at the Gepel (dGe-dpal) cemetery, Sakya County. This dough tortoise was placed with charcoal inside a ceramic vessel. It is thought to have probably been a ransom offering in lieu of blood sacrifice. It is attributed to the “Tubo period” (in this work, expansively dated from 3rd century BCE to 9th century CE). See p. 211 (fig. 123) of Zla-ba tshe-ring, Suo Wenqing, dBang-’dus, and bSod-nams dbang-ldan. 2000: Precious Deposits: Historical Relics of Tibet, China. Beijing: Morning Glory Publishers.
A Photographic Gallery of pre-Imperial-Period Metal Objects from Various Regions in the Tibet Museum collection
The Tibet Museum houses a small but diverse collection of metallic objects dating to the pre-Imperial period (pre-7th century CE). This was a formative epoch in Tibetan civilization, bridging various phases of its cultural, political, economic and technological development. With the exception of the west, where Chinese, Tibetan and foreign archaeologists have uncovered a considerable body of evidence for the Iron Age and Protohistoric period, relatively little research and exploration of this pivotal era has been conducted in Tibet.
For the horse bridle in the center of the photograph, see August 2014 Flight of the Khyung.
This mirror was over cleaned a few years ago and has still not been properly stabilized.
The mirror from Chugong is very similar to two specimens illustrated in the December 2014 Flight of the Khyung, figs. 5, 6. The style of volutes in the outer band of the Chugong mirror is a decorative feature shared in common with the mirror in fig. 6. Also, the sockets connecting the handle to the mirror, as well as the elevated rim, in all three examples under review here are of the same design and workmanship. However, the mirrors in figs. 5 and 6 of the 2014 December newsletter have a distinctive circular nub or nipple in the center, while the center point of the Chugong mirror is only slightly raised. An unique feature of the Chugong specimen are the two engraved birds situated above the central ring (I still have not been able to discern them). The central ring itself is adorned with an engraved quadpartite volutes motif reminiscent of a swastika.
From the purported place of discovery of the mirror in fig. 6 of the December 2014 Flight of the Khyung and another one of this typology recently found in Western Tibet, as well as taking into account the volutes decorative treatment of all three engraved mirrors mentioned in that newsletter, I provisionally identify them as being of Upper Tibetan origins. Nevertheless, the discovery of the Chugong specimen in situ in a tomb, may indicate that these mirrors, or least certain ones among them, were produced in Central Tibet. It must be noted that Mark Aldenderfer and Zhang Yinong’s belief that the Chugong mirror was made in Central Asia (2004: 32) is not warranted.*Aldenderfer, M. and Zhang Yinong. 2004. “The Prehistory of the Tibetan Plateau to the Seventh Century A.D.: Perspectives and Research from China and the West Since 1950” in Journal of World Prehistory, vol. 18 (no. 1), pp. 1–55. Springer: Netherlands.
Unfortunately, it appears that no chronological data were compiled for the tomb from which the Chugong mirror was recovered. Two of the engraved mirrors in the December 2014 Flight of the Khyung are dated by Namgyal G. Ronge to 800–300 BCE. Huo 1994; Huo 1997; IOA 1999; and Zhao 1994 (after Aldenderfer and Zhang 2004: 32) attribute the Chungong example to 800–500 BCE. Amy Heller more conservatively places one of the specimens shown in the December Flight of the Khyung in the 200 BCE to 200 CE period. Pending further information, I think it is best to assign all of the copper alloy mirrors with engraved volutes discussed in this article to 500 BCE to 200 CE (Iron Age or early Protohistoric period).
For more on this dagger, see the July 2010 Flight of the Khyung. For a very similar dagger said to have been found in Sichuan illustrated on a commercial website, see:
The two knives referred to here are of Tibetan or possibly northeastern Inner Asian origins.
A Photographic Gallery of the Rock Art Exhibition in the Tibet Museum collection
The Tibet Museum has a number of photographs of rock art on display. They have also constructed an artificial rock wall showing how petroglyphs are distributed on stone surfaces. I have chosen just a small range of materials for presentation here.
Only a portion of the rock art sites recorded in Western Tibet is shown on this map. For a more complete listing of sites see:
Bruneau, L. and Bellezza, J. V. 2013: “The Rock Art of Upper Tibet and Ladakh: Inner Asian cultural adaptation, regional differentiation and the ‘Western Tibetan Plateau Style’”, in Revue d’etudes tibétaines, vol. 28 (December 2013), pp. 5–161. Paris: CNRS: http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ret/pdf/ret_28.pdf
The ceremonial monument depicted in this rock art is of a type that spread all the way to Western Tibet, and beyond to Ladakh, northern Pakistan and the Wakhan corridor. For the rock art in figs. 119 and 120, also see Suolang Wangdui’s (bSod-nams dBang-’dus) 1994 book: Art of Tibetan Rock Paintings, “Introduction” by Li Yongxian and Huo Wei, Chengdu: Sichuan People’s Publishing House. Go to pp. 166, 169
Next Month: A plan to conserve the archaeological treasures of Upper Tibet!