What is this object?
The Bactrian camel was used to haul trade goods along the silk roads leading out of China across the western regions into Central Asia and beyond.
How was it made?
This object was made from light-colored earthenware clays, partly using molds with added sections that were joined together. The insides were often hollow or had holes to prevent unwanted distortion of the object when fired. The polychrome (multicolored) glaze is called sancai (literally “three colors”), typically made from a lead glaze with mineral pigments of copper (for green), iron (for brown and amber), and cobalt (for blue), and fired at a temperature of about 800–1000 C°. The production of sancai wares flourished between the late 600s and mid-700s, mainly in northern China. Before this period, colors on most ceramics were limited to a relatively finite range of green and brown glazed wares.
How was it used?
This object was placed in a tomb for the wealthy located in the northern regions of China. Tang dynasty (618-906) tombs of this type were multichambered constructions, often with passageways and niches where such objects would have been placed after the tomb owner’s body had been interred and funerary rituals completed. Because of the lead glaze, which could be toxic if used in daily activities, such objects would not have been used by the living, but prepared especially for burial.
How does this object reflect the life and times when it was made?
Objects such as this one, even though it was intended for burial, gives us a colorful view of life during the high Tang dynasty (618-906). It makes specific reference to the trade routes. Camels were used to transport goods across the arid regions of the northwestern part of the Tang empire. Called the “ships of the desert,” these hardy animals could travel long stretches without water, and their padded feet were adapted to traversing the many sand dunes along the way. This camel carries a cushion between its two humps along with mixed cargo (note the small white vessel below the front hump). The cushion is decorated with a comical face. Many similar glazed earthenware objects have been found in Tang tombs. Some have musicians or travelers perched atop the camel. Other figures of camels are stacked with bolts of silk. Silk was the primary export commodity in demand outside of China. The Tang capital of Chang-an (modern Xi’an) was transformed into one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world at that time. It was a magnet for trade and commerce.