Inscriptions, bronze objects and funerary implications

May 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Much has been written on the inscriptions commonly found on bronze vessels and other bronze weapons at Anyang. The process of inscribing bronze ritual vessels and bronze weapons with clan insignia or titles (Fu 妇- consort; Ya 亚- a military position) appears to be unique to Anyang. Such inscriptions have not been found on vessels of the Erlitou and Erligang – the pre-Anyang periods of the Bronze Age. Thus, at Anyang, we see a new development with regards to writing and inscribing bronze objects.

Due to the position of the inscription on the bronze vessels, such as under the base or inside the rim, scholars have suggested that they were meant to be read by the ancestors and not necessarily by people who attended a ritual banquet for the ancestors. Jessica Rawson of Oxford University has posited that since the vessels were filled with food and drink, perhaps the ancestors were meant to read the inscriptions as they consumed the contents at a ritual banquet.

Moreover, scholars also surmise that the owner of the ritual vessels inscribed the pieces with his or her name or clan while he or she was alive. At the time of his or her funeral, vessels were then culled selectively from an altar and placed in the owner’s tomb.

However, Robert Bagley has proposed a different scenario, and one which has quite different implications for Shang funerals and the role of bronze ritual vessels and other bronze weapons.

Bagley, in his article on writing at Anyang, argues that there is little evidence to suggest that these vessels were used above ground. Unlike in the proceeding Zhou period where hoards of vessels have been recovered near the palace-temple area of the Zhouyuan, suggesting that such pieces rested on altars in temples, in the Late Shang at Anyang, no such comparable hoards have been unearthed.

Furthermore, if vessels were only used within a funerary setting, and were then buried with an individual, then it would follow that the individual to whom these vessels belonged (I use this term loosely as we should not envisage modern, capitalist notions of ownership in Bronze Age China) most probably did not cast them himself. Instead, we might be looking a scenario whereby a family cast a set of vessels for the deceased, dedicating them to him or her, and then buried them at the funeral.

The other possibility is that individuals cast vessels prior to their death and then perhaps stored them away, but this seems quite unlikely in reality.

The implication that bronze vessels were only used within funerary settings places enormous emphasis on funerals within the Late Shang period. An importance which we might have underestimated. Large amounts of resources and time would have been invested into objects which were then never seen again. The vessels would have had to have been molded, cast and decorated. Moreover, if ritual vessels categorised individuals and expressed identity, then a new identity would have been created at the funeral for the tomb occupant and perhaps for his or her family. These pieces then perhaps helped fix a particular image within the minds of the onlookers, and the funeral would have a pertinent occasion for creating identities.

Within Shang studies, the funeral is often treated as some fossilised indicator of social status and a passive reflection of the personal attributes of the deceased. As Bagley has also pointed out, funerals were prime settings for ancestral worship and veneration. Alongside this ancestral worship, a funeral might also have been about making some last comments on the tomb occupant and his or family. If the Shang believed that the deceased would use these vessels in the afterlife, then presumably the family would send him or her off with a fitting set of bronze vessels. Therefore, funerals may have been active arenas and were possibly competitive displays of power, and theatres for the (re)creation of identities.

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