Tomb model of a watchtower

Models (including the central watchtower), 1st–early 3rd century C.E. (Eastern Han dynasty), earthernware with green lead glaze, China, 104.1 x 57.5 x 29.8 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Cortney Chaffin: [0:05] We’re in the ancient Chinese galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we’ve stopped in front of a case that is filled with these amazing models. We’re seeing animals in pens. We’re seeing structures with people kneeling in them. We’re seeing a well, and then these three sizable watchtowers that almost remind me of a dollhouse.

[0:27] The watchtower in the center is the largest. It is a four-story tower. The lower level is rectangular, with small rectangular openings for windows. Now that watchtower, as well as all the models that we’re seeing here, come from the time of the Eastern Han dynasty in ancient China. This is a time when we find an abundance of objects like this appearing in a variety of tombs.

[0:57] Differing from earlier periods in Chinese history, during the Eastern Han, if one could afford an elaborate burial, then one could have one, with an assortment of models like these.

[1:12] These are not to scale, but these are small models that were intended to accompany the spirit of the deceased. They don’t necessarily reflect what the individual owned in their life, but it could be something that they wanted to have in the afterlife.

[1:28] In some ways, it reminds me of ancient Egyptian tombs where you have an interest in a similar type of object that’s accompanying the deceased so that the soul could benefit from all of these structures, and objects, and animals, and buildings, in the afterlife.

[1:44] So these tombs, in essence, are a microcosm of the world that the spirit of the tomb occupant hoped to live in during the afterlife. These objects are called mingqi, which means spirit objects. Spirit objects are objects that are made specifically to be buried in a tomb.

[2:07] During the Eastern Han dynasty, we find in tombs two categories of objects: mingqi, spirit objects, and objects that the tomb occupant owned and cherished during their lifetime.

[2:21] Now, mingqi did not originate in the Eastern Han dynasty. We could think back to the Tomb of the First Emperor with the famous terracotta soldiers. Those are also mingqi.

[2:32] What is different about what’s happening in the Eastern Han dynasty is that we’re seeing many more people being able to afford this type of object and being buried with them on this smaller scale.

[2:44] Because these are made sometime in probably the 1st century of the Common Era, most of the architecture was likely made in wood, so it doesn’t survive. An object like the watchtower helps us to understand the longer history of Chinese architecture.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:59] Traditional Chinese architecture was timber architecture and used an interlocking system, or a post-and-lintel system, of construction. This tower is elaborate in that we can see it has three sets of roof eaves that are supported by complex bracket sets. In traditional Chinese architecture, the bracket sets would also be made of wood, but here they are modeled in clay.

Dr. Chaffin: [3:30] I love the details like the criss-cross lattice that covers the windows. My favorite detail, though, of this watchtower is the tiny human figure that is peeking out of one of the uppermost windows. It animates this watchtower in a way that, today at least, I read as very charming.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:47] Even though this was buried in a tomb for the two occupants’ eyes alone, the artist spent some time adding some interesting details. If you look at the roof on the very top of this structure, you can even make out the round roof tiles, which are characteristic of traditional Chinese architecture.

Dr. Chaffin: [4:11] Some of those still survive from this era or shortly thereafter. What’s remarkable about these objects as well is that they were largely mold-made, meaning that they are being reproduced, but as you mentioned, the artists are also then adding in further detail.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:29] During the Eastern Han, you can imagine that there was an extensive funerary industry to support the burial of one’s deceased relatives. Looking at mingqi objects like this is a reminder of how important it was to bury the deceased properly, and to honor one’s ancestors.

Dr. Chaffin: [4:53] During the Eastern Han, the idea was to create a happy afterlife.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:59] We’re getting a wonderful sense of how they were able to achieve that here in miniature form.

[5:04] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Cortney E. Chaffin and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Tomb model of a watchtower," in Smarthistory, April 19, 2023, accessed June 15, 2024,