A remarkable bronze bell or bo from ancient China.

What is it?

This ancient Chinese bronze bell is one of a set of four. It is decorated with birds forming a suspension loop, coiled serpents as bosses, and dragons on the bottom panel. Each bell in the group is of a different size (this one measures 66.4cm in height and 47cm in width) and each produces a different note when struck by a mallet. This type of bell, known as a bo, was developed between 1300 and 800 BC in China’s Yangtze River valley and would have been suspended mouth-down from a rack. This particular bo is later in date, originating in the Eastern Zhou dynasty in the late Spring and Autumn period, c.500-450 BC.

Where was it found, and when?

The bell entered the Freer Gallery of Art’s collection in 1941. It was bought from a dealer, but his stock cards contain no clues as to when or where it was found. Bells from the same group were acquired by other US museums in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The earliest acquisition was in 1938, when the Buckingham family donated their bell to the Art Institute of Chicago. The Buckinghams often held onto their purchases for a short period before giving them to the Institute, so it is thought that the bell set was unearthed in the mid-1930s, if not before.

While the findspot of the bo remains a mystery, excavations at the Houma foundry in the Shanxi province have revealed that the group was manufactured in this flourishing production centre. Established in c.585 BC, the bronze foundry was the largest known anywhere in the ancient world, and was the site of large-scale production of major objects for around 150 years. The foundry was excavated between 1955 and the 1960s (although the final report was not published until the 1990s), and tens of thousands of ceramic fragments of models and moulds were uncovered. Many of these match surviving bronze objects, such as this bo and the others in its group.

Why does it matter?

Bells were among the earliest objects to be cast in bronze in China (a practice that was under way by 1600 BC) and they became an important part of Bronze Age court life. Between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, there were a number of powerful local courts who competed with one another, not just on the battlefield, but in the cultural sphere too. Music was a key part in this display of superiority, with courts having their own orchestras and instruments, like the bo, as showpieces.

The scale of the works at Houma shows that bronze items were in high demand at this time. The foundry was controlled by the aristocratic rulers of the state of Jin, and the artefacts cast there probably came into the hands of their owners through involvement with the administrators. Elite objects in particular, like the impressive, high-status bells, probably rewarded service to the state. As well as serving as a sign of favour from the rulers, a set of bells would, according to tradition, bring happiness to the family who owned it.

Weighing 61.2kg, this bo is not the largest bell produced, but it still required a considerable amount of the metal, making the set a costly commission. With its elegant decoration, it is a luxury artefact that is emblematic of the height of Chinese bronze production and the status-conferring role these bells would play.

See for yourself

The bell will go on display in the long-term exhibition Resound: Ancient Bells of China at the Smithsonian’s newly reopened Arthur M Sackler Gallery from 14 October 2017.
Website: asia.si.edu

This article appeared in issue 85 of Current World Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

Image: Freer Gallery of Art

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