Ancient Bronzes

Ancient Bronzes of the Asian Grasslands from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation

2 September—14 December 2008

Ancient Bronzes of the Asian Grasslands brings to life the complex cultures that flourished across an enormous expanse of territory from northern China and Mongolia into Eastern Europe, and reveals the cross-pollination of cultures throughout a vast region.

This exhibition focuses on the eastern or Asian steppes whose rolling grassy plains are punctuated by snow-topped mountain ranges like the Tien Shan (Heavenly Mountains), and deserts like the Gobi and Taklamakan. In 2000 BCE, villages of farmers, hunters, and fisherman populated the grasslands. Six centuries later, many people had left their villages to range over the territory managing herds of sheep, goats, cattle, and horses. Horses, first domesticated in the steppes, were integral to this new way of life. By 900 BCE, the steppe dwellers, now legendary as riders and breeders, began to supply horses to the empires of eastern and western Asia. The famous trade routes linking Asia and Europe in ancient times, such as the Silk Road that connected China and Rome, traversed the grasslands. By guiding and supplying the trade caravans, the steppe dwellers played an essential role in the exchange of goods and ideas between East and West.

The small-scale bronzes featured in this exhibition were eminently portable personal objects reflecting the lifestyles of these horse-riding nomads. They reveal how the steppe dwellers relied upon the animal kingdom as a primary source of symbolic imagery to indicate tribe, social rank, and connection to the spirit world.

Animal motifs including lively antlered stags, horses, camels, deer, and ferocious wild boars and birds of prey abound. While some animals were tribal or clan totems, other fantastic creatures may refer to myths, epics, and legends, aspects of religious beliefs now forgotten. This exhibition of spectacular ancient bronzes from the Asian steppes is drawn from the renowned collections of the late Arthur M. Sackler (1913–1987), a research psychiatrist, medical publisher, connoisseur, and art collector. It was organized by Trudy S. Kawami, Director of Research for the Sackler Foundation, which was established by Dr. Sackler in 1965 to make his extensive collections widely accessible to the public.

Image Captions
Southwestern Inner Mongolia
Finial for funerary canopy
Bronze, 5th-4th century BCE
Photograph courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, NY

Northern China
Buckle Plaque
Bronze, 2nd century BCE
Photograph courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, NY

Northwestern China
Bronze inlaid with turquoise, 13th-11th century BCE
Photograph courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, NY