The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China

The Search for Immortality — Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s current exhibition showcases the treasures found in the royal tombs of the Han Dynasty, rulers of a vast empire encompassing much of what is now modern China, from the 2nd-1st century B.C. (i.e. contemporary with the late Roman Republic).* The Han emperors and kings were buried in tomb complexes containing everything they might need in the afterlife, from food supplies and cooking facilities to tomb guardians and vast quantities of jade, believed to offer protection from evil spirits after death.

Groups of terracotta soldiers, officials, and horses guard the entrance to the exhibition. The first section is laid out by theme, such as ‘bathing’ – which, the text solemnly informs visitors, was considered so important that court officials were given one day off in five to have a proper bath. Alongside the bathing equipment, there’s even an actual squat toilet (yes, the Han really did provide everything the dead person could possibly need in the afterlife). Other sections include ‘court entertainment’ (a wonderful group of terracotta dancers and musicians); and ‘the kitchen’ (including a meat-hook with built-in insect trap: even spirits in the afterlife need to keep bugs away from the food). The final two rooms contain selected objects from some of the most important tombs – those in the area of Xuzhou, the Han ancestral seat, and those in the Kingdom of Nanyue (a vassal state/ rival to the Han) – most notably containing the two jade burial suits billed as the stars of the exhibition, along with many other precious objects including a complete jade coffin.

It goes without saying that the artefacts themselves are stunning; the displays are beautifully arranged, especially the wonderful groups of terracotta figures and the strikingly-lit translucent jade objects. Text panels on the walls provide good historical and cultural background, while the labels generally do a very good job of explaining the significance of the individual artefacts, balancing the broad contextual information of the wall panels with careful attention to detail.

Unfortunately, the exhibition has one flaw, namely its layout. The thematic arrangement of the first part works well as a concept, but without any clear route to follow from one theme to the next, and with labels and text panels often located beyond the objects they describe, the layout isn’t all that visitor-friendly. The shift in the second half from a thematic layout to one centred around individual tombs is a little jarring: representing the two areas separately is meant to reflect the historical situation and provide a reflection on the relations between the two kingdoms, and certainly the texts do that very well. But in contrast to the first half, these rooms seemed slightly bitty, with little attempt to provide thematic links between objects. Problems of layout recur here – e.g. the panel explaining the symbolic significance of jade (the major focus of these two rooms) is placed at the very end, after almost every single jade object in the exhibition (!).

But these problems are more than outweighed by the fantastic objects and the extremely good job the exhibition does of placing them in context, and I would certainly encourage everyone to go and visit – especially as it’s free! (For readers outside Cambridge, there’s an online exhibition with a small selection of objects and some more contextual information.) I’d love to hear from anyone who goes (or who’s already been) what you think of it – whether you agree or completely disagree with everything I’ve just said!


*This might not technically be relevant to a Classics blog, but, as the exhibition points out, this was the period in which contacts between East and West via the Silk Road began to open up. From a comparative point of view, it’s also extremely interesting for classicists to look at a very different kind of empire. If neither of those is a good enough reason to include this on the blog, well, even classicists have to get out of the library occasionally…


Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

3 thoughts on “The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China”

  1. I finally got around to seeing this exhibition myself earlier today, and I must agree the layout is somewhat flawed. The thematic presentation made it difficult for me to remember that all the materials were burial offerings rather than actual everyday life objects at the beginning, before all the lavish coffins, sarcophagi, and other entombment apparatus in the final room. It felt a little bit unbalanced. But, again, the artefacts were nonetheless incredible and still quite worth seeing.


    1. Well, yes; it’s a little hard to know how much of the bathing/kitchen equipment and so on were specially made for burial, and how many might have actually been used beforehand (I suspect mostly the former, seeing as how this was basically the conspicuous consumption to end all conspicuous consumption…). I have to say that this seems to me a fairly regular feature of Fitz exhibitions (temporary and permanent — this applies to the new Greek and Roman gallery as much as this exhibition or the Vermeer’s Women one): stunning objects, stunning displays, excellent labelling, but just let down by layout!


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