John Ayers, Far Eastern Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1980, cat. 3
Rose Kerr (ed.), Chinese Art and Design, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, p. 48, fig. 14
Liefkes, Reino and Hilary Young (eds.) Masterpieces of World Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V&A Publishing, 2008, pp. 26.
Tomb figure of a dog, earthenware with lead glaze, China, Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD)
Length: 34.0 cm, Height: 34.5 cm, Depth: 14.0 cm
World Ceramics, room 145
Tomb figure of a dog
Eastern Han dynasty
In China, animal figures were interred with the dead in their tombs. The figures, made from loess, were fired at relatively low temperatures. High levels of lead were added to the green glaze so that it would melt at these low temperatures. Similar highlead glazes were used in the Roman empire at this time, but it is not known whether there is a link.
Museum no. C.167-1914 [September 2009]
This earthenware tomb figure depicts a dog with an upturned tail. It was made during the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25-220) and buried in a grave along with other models of animals, farm buildings and daily vessels according to Han funerary customs. The dog had the task of guarding the tomb and driving away evil influences. The figure has a green lead glaze which has become partly iridescent due to burying.
The Chinese tradition of sumptuous burials had led to a great variety of ceramic figures of wild and domesticated animals being interred with the deceased in tombs. These animals, together with architectural models such as watch-towers and water-wells, provide a rich insight into the daily life under the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
This figure is made of loess, which has fired to the reddish colour visible in places where the glaze has flaked off. The fine texture and low shrinkage rate of loess had made it a favourite raw material for Northern Chinese pottery. However, it melts at a comparatively low temperature, so if a glaze was required this needed to have an even lower melting point. The potters therefore used glazes with a high lead content, which had the advantage of producing brilliant colours with warm tones. Modern ceramic historians have been intrigued by this development, as high-lead glazes were also used by Roman potters, and one theory, still unsubstantiated, is that the Chinese were influenced by the Romans.
Unless properly prepared, high-lead glazes can poison both makers and users of pots alike. Copper oxide, was particularly dangerous as it upset the chemical stability of the glaze and caused lead to leach out. The silvery iridescence on this dog is partly the result of the unstable glaze, but has been exacerbated by burial conditions and is a characteristic feature of Han dynasty green mortuary wares.