The Archaeology of Colors

Polychromy and Classical Chinese Bronze Art

Allison Miller

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar

Researchers of Hellenistic art have long recognized that many statues that now appear as works of pure white marble were originally polychrome. In early Chinese art, in contrast, the hallowed works of China's classical antiquity—the bronzes—are generally believed to have been unpainted. After all, why would artisans paint over an expensive bronze surface? In recent years, however, many varieties of bronzes have been uncovered with colorful ornamentation including sacrificial vessels, figural sculptures, mirrors, lamps, weapons, and personal ornaments. Using this data, this talk will survey China's polychrome bronze tradition from the Shang to the Han (1600 BCE-220 CE), considering the diverse functions assumed by painted ornamentation and identifying two major transitions in polychrome bronze art in the 5th c. BCE and the mid-2nd century BCE. Special attention will be paid to technical aspects of painting craft in early China, particularly the development of new binding agents in the Western Han.

Allison Miller specializes in Chinese art and archaeology. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University (2011) in East Asian Languages and Civilizations (EALC) and Art History and an A.B. from the University of Chicago (2003) in Classics and EALC. She is currently Associate Professor of Art History at Southwestern University near Austin, Texas. Her research has been supported by Harvard’s Asia and Fairbank Centers and the Fulbright Foundation. She was also a 2017-2018 lecturer for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).

As an art historian with an interdisciplinary approach, Miller’s research investigates the relationship of visual forms to political history and contexts of artistic production. Her forthcoming book, Kingly Splendor: Materiality and Royal Art in Han China, highlights the important role played by elites outside of the capital region in stimulating five important transitions in early Han funerary art: 1) rock-cut tombs, 2) miniature terracotta armies, 3) jade suits, 4) wall murals, and 5) purple dyes and pigments. The study shows how the structure of the early Han empire—with the emperor as one amongst peers—profited artistic production in a way that would not occur after the empire became more centralized, resulting in the development of artistic genres that would form the basis of Chinese funerary art for the remainder of pre-modern Chinese history.

During her time at ISAW, Miller will write a history of color in ancient China. She will investigate the chief dyes and pigments used in China’s antiquity, the process by which they were acquired and produced, and the meanings associated with specific colors. The project will reveal not only the ways that the Chinese cultivated and utilized their own mineral and vegetal resources, but also the dynamic impact of long-distance trade and exchange on early imperial Chinese society.

Article and chapter-length publications by Miller can be accessed here.

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