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Horse decoration in the form of a taotie mask, approx. 1300–1050 BCE

Horse decoration in the form of a taotie mask, approx. 1300-1050 BCE

Horse decoration in the form of a taotie mask, approx. 1300-1050 BCE. China; Shang dynasty (approx. 1600-1050 BCE). 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 BCE). 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 BCE)?
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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