Round Lid

  • China
  • China, Late Eastern Zhou period
  • Late 4th to 3rd centuries B.C.
  • Bronze with gold and silver foil inlays
  • H-3.6 D-13
Catalogue Entry

The size of this roundel, the height of its sides, and the trench around the edge on the underside suggest that it may have been the lid of a lacquered wooden vessel, now disintegrated. The trench contains crusty black material, probably the remains of black lacquer. Four rectangular cavities distributed regularly around the vertical edge each hold the remains of what might have been attachments for bronze handles, now broken and lost.

The design on top, bounded by a narrow border of diagonal volutes and spirals, is closely comparable to catalogue number 95 in the shapes of the motifs, inlay techniques, color effects, complexity, and dynamism. A snake, its sinuous body distinguished by a silver-inlaid scale pattern against a dense sea of gold-inlaid scalloped scrolls, spans the diameter of the top in a rough S-shape. Its head appears at one end, with gold-rimmed mouth wide open and revealing two sharp, silver-inlaid fangs. The rest of the roundel is filled by convoluted scrolls, inlaid with gold, that may be the bodies of one or more creatures. These creatures are illusive: sharp, silver-clawed, muscular limbs, one clutching the snake's body while another extends over into the border, suggest the presence of a feline. But its head cannot be found. A third, slenderer, leg (of a bird?) also ends in sharp silver-inlaid claws near the edge. Scattered among the scrolls are striated or spotted semicircular elements that further suggest the feathers of a bird. Again, no head can be seen. The energy of the writhing serpent and gyrating scrolls, made even more palpable by the molded surface of the design, gives these ambiguous zoomorphic forms an unusual vitality.

Few designs from the late Eastern Zhou period can match or surpass this example. A close comparison, however, is another unparalleled design, painted on the lid of a lacquer box in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where the density of the painted scalloped scrolls, dynamic energy, ambiguity between zoomorphic and purely ornamental elements of the design, and even the proliferation of circlets and textured accents on the scrolls are all duplicated.1

1. Garner 1979, pl. 12.