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Horse decoration in the form of a taotie mask

Horse decoration in the form of a taotie mask, approx. 1300–1050 B.C.E. China; Shang dynasty (approx. 1600–1050 BCE). Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B647.

What is this object?

This bronze mask was probably placed on the brow or chest of a horse that pulled chariots during the Shang dynasty (1600–1050 B.C.E.). Horses and chariot were buried along with the owner in a tomb. The bronze mask survived, whereas other parts of the chariot disintegrated after burial.

Who were the Shang?

The Shang was the first major dynasty to rule central China during the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age is so-named because of the widespread use of bronze for ritual vessels, weapons (including chariot fittings) and objects of status. The focus of Shang society was the king, who was part of a family clan linked by a common ancestor. The Shang maintained their rule through military conquest, and by claiming the rite to rule through hereditary links to the first ancestor.

How was the chariot used in the Shang dynasty (1600–1050 B.C.E.)?

Entire chariots and their horses have been found near or adjacent to Shang tombs, meaning that they were important possessions at that time. Tomb owners felt that the placement of chariots and other weapons in the tomb would protect them in the afterlife. Human sacrifices were also included in Shang burials.
Chariots were the principle war weapon of the Shang elite. Each chariot would have carried three soldiers: a driver, an archer, and a soldier carrying a weapon called a ko. Chariots would have allowed the ruling elite to survey a battle from a more commanding position than the ordinary foot soldier, as well as display their rank and position. Bronze fittings added to the appearance of the chariot, and also may have served to ward off evil from the owner. Other bronze chariot pieces found in tombs include axles, rattles and other ornamental fittings.

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    We read, "Human sacrifices were also included in Shang burials."

    Were these carried out in a dramatic and public way such as in Ancient Mesoamerica? How were human sacrifices in Ancient China carried out? What more (if anything) do we know about them? I hadn't heard anything about this before...
    (8 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Jake Suzuki
      The usual methodology of human sacrifice accompanying burial generally isn't the show pieces of mesoamerican fame, the reasoning behind them is totally disparate. The aztecs sacrificed people to their gods in a spectacular rite that affirmed their religion and provided a heavy political and social function to those people.

      On the otherhand, sacrifice for burial is to provide servants or... Religious capital, for the deceased. Instances throughout history have people simply buried alive, poisoned or a more violent killing, but the visual spectacle isn't the main aim. The vikings probably had the most visible version in their shipburnings. The "viking funeral" of notoriety.

      Some high status people may've had public sacrifices to reaffirm their worldly power, but at the end of the day, these are still funerals, and funeral rites.
      (6 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Crystalline Alicorn
    Where is the brow of a horse?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Ferol
    the horses weren't buried alive were they?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Destiny199
    Why did there have to be human Safire?
    (1 vote)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    Bronze was used in many cultures throughout the world, an alloy of mixed copper and something else (tin, zinc, lead, etc). What was the composition of the alloy used by the Zhang, and how did it differ from that used at other times, and in other places (say, in the Levant, in Peru, etc.)?
    (1 vote)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Michael Hernandez member No.2
    why do the masks have to be bronze?
    (1 vote)
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