Sunday, February 06, 2011

Famen Temple.

Today's blog post is inspired by troubles at the Penn Museum and their Silk Road exhibit that was supposed to open this weekend. China is dicking with them and it's gone horribly wrong. But it got me thinking of other awesomeness in Chinese history and archeology, and you're stuck now, reading about one of my all-time favorite archeological discoveries. This one is a favorite for the sheer HolyFuck awesomeness. And also because I imagine what it must have been like to be one of the first ones in the room - very much like Howard Carter and King Tut: Famen Temple's underground 'crypt'.

Traditionally, in China, there were sort of reverse-pilgrimages, when relics (in this case finger bones from the Buddha, from the looks of the official web site) were taken from their temple, carried about the countryside, and then replaced with many offerings and sealed up until the next round of processions. Larger, greater, more important temples, like the one in Famen, would get imperial offerings from the royal family as well as the wealthy from all over.

After a procession in 873CE (to the capital and back), all the offerings and the relics were gathered up, placed in an underground crypt, and sealed up with a really helpful detailed inventory. Normally, they would have been taken out every fifty years or so, send on another procession, and put away with more offerings.

Then they were forgotten. No one's sure why.

In 1984CE (like, when I was in high school), part of the pagoda at Famen Temple fell down. Nothing much happened - I assume because by then China was a communist country and in the eighties, China famously did not give a rip about religion. Eventually, local governments and some Buddhists got together and started cleaning up and digging out, and in 1987 they stumbled into that underground crypt packed to the rafters (do crypts have rafters?) with the best that the Tang Dynasty had to offer. Statues, textiles, scrolls, gold and silver, even musical instruments if my memory's working today. Can you imagine, standing there with your flashlight, with all of that looking back at you?

Among the nearly 2500 bits and bobs were over seven hundred textiles. Most of them were things historians had read about, but never seen. Famen figures largely in descriptions of textiles in particular, containing oldest known examples of all sorts of things. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of pictures available, at least not on the internet, or in any books I own. (I've been cruising the official web site, which is tedious in the extreme, considering I don't read Chinese. No pictures of artifacts I can find, lots of touristy stuff showing Buddhist festivals; cool, but not what I'm looking for. They wanted me to download a plugin to watch videos. Hahahahaha. NO. WAY.)

To give you an idea, though, here's one picture I can find:

This piece, and several others that match, were made for a statue, so it's not nearly as big as you think; consider it doll clothes. The red fabric is silk. The Chinese didn't have access to any of the bright red bug dyes (cochineal, kermes) at the time (that we know of), so it was either dyed with lac or a mineral pigment. Regardless, red fabric wasn't easy to make. The gold embroidery is done with real gold foil, wrapped around a core of silk fiber. Then it's laid over the fabric and carefully stitched down. (Couching, it's called.) Labor intensive and expensive.

The coolest thing about the find, though, was the combination of inventory in writing AND artifacts. Chinese is written with pictograms - some of them go back as far as the Shang Dynasty, 3500 years ago. So for hundreds of years, historians had been reading accounts of THINGS in ancient China, and didn't have any idea what they were talking about. Either the symbols were completely meaningless, or they could figure out GENERALLY what was being discussed in context, but not be sure. But with this discovery, they finally KNEW.

Among other things they finally figured out were ceramics. For years they'd known of Celadon, but had no real idea what it was.

Now they knew. (Celadons are some of my favorite.)

"Secret color" porcelain?

There you go.

They also found a lot of gold and silver.

One of the most important archeological finds you've never heard of.


Sarah {The Student Knitter} said...

way super cool. I'm a fan of those Celadon dishes too, and the textiles are just beautiful!

Barbara said...

My son and I toured an exhibit of ancient Chinese artifacts at the Seattle Art museum about 10 years ago that was totally engrossing. My favorite were metal sculptures that looked like trees of life or parade banners with tiny metal charms dangling from the arms. Very cool and intricate. I love seeing how ancient cultures lived their lives. Thanks for the info.

Emily said...

Wow! This post was awesome! I mean awesomer than the usual, even!

bobbins said...

fascinating. Thank you!!

Roxie said...

Years of a skilled artisan's life going into a single artefact. Do we even do that anymore? What an awesome find! And matching words with the objects - Eureka! That's a Celadon!!

Amy Lane said...

Wow-- like Sarah said-- way super cool!

ellen in indy said...

reminds me of intricate ivory and jade carvings i saw in a museum in taiwan in 2002. unbelievable detail -- stuff it took years to carve.

meanwhile, my ancestors were painting themselves blue and building stonehenge -- also remarkable in its own right, but not quite as beautiful.

thanks for the visual treat of the day!