This year on BBC Radio 4 is a series, A History of the World in 100 Objects.
From this series I chose 2 items:
- Silk Princess Painting and
- Korean Roof Tile
Silk Princess Painting
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Neil MacGregor has been exploring the world of the late 7th century, with objects from South America, Britain, Syria and Korea.
This painting on a wooden panel shows scenes from the Central Asian story of the Silk Princess. According to this legend, a Chinese princess smuggled the secret of how to make silk out of China and into the country of her new husband, the king of Khotan. As she was a princess the border guards did not dare search her. In this painting her elaborate headdress conceals the cocoons of the silk moth and the seeds of the mulberry tree.
This object is from the 4000 mile tangle of routes that has become known as the Silk Road - that great conduit of ideas, technologies, goods and beliefs that effectively linked the Pacific with the Mediterranean. His chosen object which lets him travel the ancient Silk Route is a fragile painting telling a story of "industrial espionage". It comes from the Buddhist kingdom of Khotan, now in Western China, and tells a powerful story about how the secrets of silk manufacture were passed along the fabled route. The cellist and composer Yo Yo Ma, who has long been fascinated by the Silk Road and who thinks of it as "the internet of antiquity", and the writer Colin Thubron consider the impact of the Silk Road - in reality and on the imagination.
In search of the silk princess
When handling the wooden panel with the depiction of the Silk Princess, one is surprised about its weight. Having been buried under the desert sands for well over a thousand years, any humidity has evaporated from the wooden panel and it has become extremely light. Apart from the loss of some colour pigments on its surface though, the lively and linear brushstrokes of the painter are still clear. Because wood was so precious along the Silk Road, most of the painted panels of this kind were painted on both sides with different scenes, although not this one.
What is interesting about this object panel is perhaps that it found its place in a Buddhist shrine and therefore had its place in a religious context. It is evidence for the close interaction between religion, ritual and daily life of Ancient Khotan along the Silk Road.
Furthermore, written sources and archaeological evidence prove that the production of silk and silk manufacture technology was invented in China about 4,000 years ago. Around the second millenium BC the precious material was produced for the Chinese aristocracy and must have had a similar status as ritual bronzes. Historians agree that the knowledge and technology of silk production gradually travelled westwards from China via the Silk Road to Byzantium and then to northern Europe. This happened around the sixth century, approximately at the time, when this panel was painted.
Korean Roof Tile
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The history of the world as told through one hundred objects at the British Museum in London. This week the museum's director, Neil MacGregor has been telling the story of the Silk Road (and beyond) towards the end of the 7th Century - with objects from South America, Syria, Britain and China.
Today he looks at what was happening in Korea at this moment in history, as it became a newly unified kingdom under the Silla state. The object that represents this moment is a roof tile with an intimidating face from a grand building in the new capital.
The face on this roof tile glares at the viewer. It was intended to scare away evil spirits from a building in the magnificent ancient capital city of Kyongju. Similar tiles were used earlier in China, but once introduced into the Korean peninsula, they reached a new height in popularity and artistry. This face most closely resembles that of a dragon, animals associated with water and hence appropriate as guardians to place on a wooden building always in danger of fire.
What was Korea's grandest city in ancient times?
This tile is from Kyongju, the capital of the Unified Silla dynasty of Korea. The city was famous for its wide streets laid out in a grid. All the houses, palaces and Buddhist temples had tiled roofs, a sign of wealth and sophistication. Decorated roof tiles started to become widespread around AD 688, when the small Korean kingdom of Silla, with help from China, conquered two other Korean kingdoms. This ushered in an age of prosperity and cultural unity in the Korean peninsula.
Keeping up with the Kims
Houses covered in roof tiles in the city of Kyongju in the eighth and ninth centuries would have been of higher status than those with thatched roofs.
Since the Silla dynasty (under the royal Kim family) had managed to unify the majority of the Korean peninsula with the help of Tang China, there was also no doubt a degree of emulation of China going on: Kyongju grew in size and splendour after it became the capital of the Unified Silla state rather than just the smaller Silla kingdom. Kyongju’s street grid layout was based on that of the Tang capital Chang-an, the biggest and most cosmopolitan city in the world in the eighth century, at the eastern end of the Silk Road. And there was a huge surge of interest in building projects in Kyongju at this time, with the construction of aristocratic mansions, garden villas and Buddhist temples, all adorned with tiled roofs.
All the aristocrats from the defeated areas of Korea were brought to Kyongju and no doubt wanted to create houses and estates in which they could preserve the lifestyle to which they were accustomed.
But why a monster mask? It is probably the case that this monster mask roof tile was also copying similar tiles from China, as these are known to exist.
The monster mask derived from the ancient Chinese taotie mask which appeared on ritual bronzes. But by the time it appeared on roof tiles it had transformed itself into a protective guardian, placed at the ends of the long ridge of the roof in order to scare off evil spirits. Placed at the highest and most prominent place on the roof, it could be seen for miles around and would stand out as a conspicuous sign of the wealth and high class of the owner of the building, as well as protecting the owners from harm.
So this moulded earthenware roof tile was functional as well as decorative, and a status symbol as well as good-looking: testimony to a highly developed level of Silla craftsmanship and a thriving economy in a capital city at the height of its prosperity.