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Ceramics are the most abundant types of artifacts made by human beings in the last 12,000 years. Chinese potters discern two types of products: earthenware (tao), which is porous and does not resonate when struck, and wares with vitreous bodies (ci), which ring like a bell. Western potters and scholars differentiate stoneware, which is semi-porous, from porcelain, which is completely vitrified. The earliest ceramics in the world are thought to have been made in China around 15,000 years ago. By the Shang dynasty, potters in China began to decorate the surfaces of their pottery with ash glaze, in which wood ash mixed with feldspar in clay to impart a shiny surface to the pottery. The first ash-glazed wares were probably made south of the Yangzi in Jiangnan. In the 9th century, China began to export pottery, which quickly became sought after in maritime Asia and Africa. Pottery making for export became a major industry in China, employing hundreds of thousands of people, and stimulating the development of the first mass-production techniques in the world. Much of the ceramic industry was located along China’s south and southeast coasts, conveniently located near ports that connected China with international markets. Chinese merchants had to adapt their wares to suit different consumers. For the last 1,000 years, Chinese ceramics provided an enormous amount of archaeological information on trade and society in the lands bordering the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, contributing a major source of data to the study of early long-distance commerce, art, technology, urbanization, and many other topics. Statistics are presented from important sites outside China where Chinese ceramics have been found.

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The concept of the Silk Road first attained prominence in the latter half of the 19th century as part of European attempts to impose economic and political claims upon the lands and peoples of Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan, Chinese Central Asia, or Chinese Turkestan). These claims were given cultural substance at the turn of the century by a series of expeditions undertaken by Western explorers and archaeologists, who ventured into the deserts of northwestern China in search of Greco-Indian art and antiquities. The study and display of such artifacts were motivated primarily by a desire to highlight the eastward migrations of Indo-European speakers into Central Asia. When these same expeditions began to reveal the presence of ancient Chinese ruins and antiquities as well, Chinese scholars and officials joined their Western counterparts in the field, using the material proceeds of their excavations to construct competing narratives of the westward influence of Chinese civilization. In the decades since the end of World War II, the concept of the Silk Road has come to dominate popular and scholarly associations with the region, monopolizing everything from the advertising of Central Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine to the names of academic monographs and international string ensembles. The elusive and malleable idea of “the Silk Road” has provided an attractive ideological platform over the past 200 years for major political, economic, and cultural actors throughout Eurasia to assert their imagined historical importance across both time and space, often with a highly romanticized gloss. In that sense, it is a purely modern intellectual construct, one that would have been utterly unfamiliar and likely incomprehensible to those historical agents it purports to describe.