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New Acquisition

Burial jar with human head

When Paul Singer began collecting early Chinese art in the late 1930s and 1940s, the field was defined by a small number of sites that seemed to trace a linear progression from Neolithic painted pots found at northwestern centers like Banshan (excavated by the Swedish scholar J. G. Anderson in 1923–24) to the early Bronze Age discoveries at Anyang (excavated by the Academia Sinica beginning in 1928). Intuitively suspecting a more complex developmental model and closely following discoveries published in the pages of Kaogu, Wenwu, and other Chinese archaeological journals, Singer acquired pieces that reflected an emerging multipolar narrative, including this Neolithic painted jar probably created in the northwestern province of Qinghai.

A welcome addition to the small gathering of early ceramics in the Sackler Gallery, this standard example is made more significant by the presence of a modeled human head. Hollow to the interior of the vessel, the applied head could have functioned as a spout but probably wasn’t one. Although abstract depictions of humans are sometimes painted on the surfaces of Machang jars, modeled heads are extremely rare and are usually created with flat sheets and lumps of clay applied directly to the neck of vessels. The approach seen on this example can be traced to a few earlier examples discovered at Banshan sites in Gansu province.

In addition to northwestern painted pots and unpainted wares from eastern Neolithic cultures, the Singer collection includes noteworthy Neolithic jades and other hard stones associated with the Liangzhu and Hongshan cultures that were not well understood until the 1970s and 1980s. Such Neolithic holdings represent only one small portion of the 5,000-piece Singer collection, which encompasses Chinese works of art in all media, with examples ranging through modern times. Many of these objects have been previously published and exhibited.


Burial jar with human head
China, Qinghai province, Machang culture, Neolithic period, late 3rd millennium BCE
Painted earthenware
26.6 x 26 x 21 cm
The Dr. Paul Singer Collection of Chinese Art of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; a joint gift of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Paul Singer, the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities, and the Children of Arthur M. Sackler
RLS1997.48.259