Barbarians or a Civilized Dynasty? - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Barbarians or a Civilized Dynasty? October 6, 2006
by Kirsten Vala

Newly excavated artifacts are changing the long-accepted story of China's Liao Empire


The gold funerary mask of the Princess of Chen reflects a nomadic Khitan tradition but in a precious material suitable for a royal burial. (Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Inner Mongolia) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Princess of Chen was only 17 or 18 when she died, but she was the granddaughter of Emperor Jingzong (r. A.D. 969-982), and she was entombed accordingly. Artifacts from her rich burial form the centerpiece of a small but spectacular exhibition, Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China's Liao Empire (907-1125), now at the Asia Society in New York.

Most of the 200 artifacts on display, recovered during recent excavations in China's Inner Mongolia, have never been seen in North America before, and it is the first time that many have been seen by the public at all. Relatively fresh out of the dirt, these discoveries have just begun telling their story and rewriting our understanding of the Liao Empire.

In A.D. 907, the Tang dynasty collapsed and was supplanted by the Liao dynasty founded by Abaoji, head of the nomadic Khitan tribes of northeastern China. The empire he established extended as far south as Beijing, reached up to northern Lake Baikal, and stretched from Manchuria on the east to the Altai Mountains on the west. Encompassed in this vast region were Khitans, Jurchens, Uighurs, and Han Chinese. Based on written sources left by the last of these groups, the Liao were long thought of as a dynasty of barbarians, but these newly excavated objects from Inner Mongolia tell a different story, one of cultural complexity and refinement.


The relic deposit in the White Pagoda, from A.D. 1049 or earlier, included 109 miniature pagodas that held Buddhist scriptures. The text here is the Lotus Sutra. (Museum of Balin Right Banner) [LARGER IMAGE]

In addition to artifacts from the tomb of the Princess of Chen and her husband, Xiao Shaoju, objects from three other excavation sites are on display: The tomb of Yelu Yazhi and his wife, dated to 942; the tomb of the Prince of Wei, Xiao Shagu, and his wife, Zhigu, dated to 959; and a relic deposit found inside the White Pagoda in the Liao city Balin Right Banner, dated to 1049. The exhibition explores four themes: nomadic heritage, Chinese tombs, religious life, and objects of luxury and necessity.

The elaborate silver and jade equestrian gear found is evidence that the formerly nomadic Liao people still valued horses highly. Knives, bow cases, and arrows from the tombs indicate that hunting, also part of their nomadic heritage, was a common practice. There is even a jade arm protector that was probably used for hunting with a falcon. The melding of technology characteristic of sedentary living and old traditions is evidenced by ceramic vessels that are modeled after leather and wooden containers.


Gilt silver boots with phoenixes found on the Princess of Chen are adaptations for burial of practical footwear. (Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Inner Mongolia) [LARGER IMAGE]

Burial attire excavated from Princess of Chen's tomb highlights the Asian steppe roots of the Liao people. She had silver boots to use in the afterlife, the importance of which probably originated with the nomadic Khitan people. The burial mask, likewise, is thought to have been a tribal tradition that the Liao retained from their Khitan past. But the gold used for this mask marks the princess as a person of great importance.

The Liao people's unique tombs show evidence of Siberian steppe and Han Chinese influence. They were constructed as if they were underground shelters for the living, but, similar to Han Chinese tombs, they were painted with attendants and familiar objects from the person's life. They were also stocked with provisions and often contained written spiritual messages to help the deceased communicate with spirits. In a compromise between Chinese tradition, where the body must be preserved, and Buddhism, where cremation is the common practice, the Liao came up with a novel invention. Life-sized wooden mannequins with moveable joints were constructed, and the cremated ashes of the deceased were inserted into an opening in the chest.


Life-sized wooden mannequin from an eleventh or early twelfth-century tomb represented the deceased person whose cremated remains were placed in a cavity in the chest. (Museum of Balin Right Banner) [LARGER IMAGE]

Four religions were practiced among the Liao people--Confucianism, Daoism, Khitan shamanism, and Buddhism--but their rulers favored Buddhism and fostered its spread. Several items on display in the exhibition are from a relic deposit at the White Pagoda, a temple at the present-day Balin Right Banner. When this pagoda was restored, between 1988 and 1992, more than 1,000 items were found dating from the Liao dynasty, including 109 pagoda-shaped containers containing scriptures. There are also many sculptures of religious Buddhist images from the Liao dynasty.

The luxuries of Liao culture, like the artifacts found with the Princess of Chen and her husband, illustrate the international context of Liao society. They were closely connected with their neighbors, with rock crystals and pearls coming from the South or Southeast Asia, imported objects from Iran and the Near East, amber from the Baltic Sea, and glass artifacts obtained from the west. At the same time, items from everyday life demonstrate the skill of the Liao and other contemporary craftsmen.


Phoenixes are carved on this amber amulet, one of a pair held by the Princess of Chen. For the Khitan, amber, which came from the Baltic Sea, was a magical substance. Placing amulets in the hands of the deceased is a Chinese tradition and began in the Han dynasty, but the powerful hooked beaks of these birds betrays the Khitan love of falconry. (Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Inner Mongolia) [LARGER IMAGE]

Gilded Splendor demonstrates how archaeology can help construct a more accurate picture of a long-past culture than one based solely on written accounts, often prejudiced, of their neighbors. Excavation of the sites and analysis of these artifacts has finally given the Liao people a voice. Far from the Han's depiction of them as barbarians, the Liao are now revealed to have had a complex society based on traditions and borrowings.

The exhibition will be on display at the Asian Society (725 Park Avenue) until December 31, and New York is its only scheduled stop in the United States, after which it goes to Cologne and Zurich.

Whether you're planning on visiting the exhibit or not, you should visit You'll find more history, background information, maps, and a timeline of Chinese history highlighting where the Liao dynasty fits in. But it's the virtual tour, where viewers are taken inside the tombs, that you won't want to miss.


Gilt silver containers in the tomb of the Princess of Chen held cosmetics. (Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Inner Mongolia) [LARGER IMAGE]

The tomb of the Princess of Chen consists of three chambers, with equestrian equipment found on the left, jars found on the right and the burial chamber in the rear, center chamber. As you tour each room online, you can choose one of the artifacts pictured at the bottom of the page. When selected, the object's location in the chamber lights up and an information window provides detailed information about the piece.

There's also a panel-by-panel and a 360-degree view of the painted walls inside the two Zhang family tombs, dated at 1116 and 1117. Attendants are painted in brilliant colors, still cooking meals and preparing tea for the deceased occupant. It's possible to view the paintings as if you were standing in the middle of the tomb, slowly turning around in wonder (as you surely would).

Much of the information online is absent at the actual exhibit. The snug gallery space and 200 objects make for display challenges. The web page doesn't show every object, but lovers of archaeology will appreciate the additional context and excavation information included in this virtual venue.


The online exhibit includes a plan of the Princess of Chen's burial, left. Scrolling over thumbnail images highlights the objects in the tomb, and a click brings up information about them. The stunning wall paintings in the tomb of Zhang Shiqing (A.D. 1116) can be viewed in 360-degeree panoramas in the virtual tour of the tomb, right. (Asia Society) [VISIT WEBSITE]

Either way, online or in person, Gilded Splendor is an exceptional exhibition that is well worth a visit.

Kirsten Vala received her B.A. in psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis and is currently a journalism graduate student at New York University.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America