A Grey Pottery Figure of an Owl

Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE)
Reference #: P6853

Height: 7¼ inches (18.42 cm)

Gems of China’s Cultural Relics 1997, number 7, page 196, listed page 257 (green and yellow/brown glazes).

The grey pottery vessel modeled in the shape of a seated owl with pointed ears flanking the circular opening at top, a small hooked beak beneath a high bridge on the nose and two large, wide-set eyes. Carved overall with bold markings to simulate the varying plumage across the surface, the base flat.

Owl-form vessels with small openings at top appear infrequently in Han art. Another type, painted on the unglazed body, also exists from this period but is more slender and cylindrical in form.1 The present version is more comparable to the example cited above; modeled with a flat base, crest to the nose and wide-set, bulging eyes, the small opening is concealed between the pointed, protruding ears. Ceramic owl-form vessels were also made prior to Han times, in the Zhou dynasty and Warring States period. Fashioned with the head forming the cover, the earlier examples can be found in a variety of models, both glazed and unglazed.2 Han dynasty examples with removable heads were also produced, however the present model appears to be more rare.3
The function of these owl-form vessels is not certain. Our Han version with the small opening at top may have served a different purpose than the earlier owl-form containers with covers. Han dynasty examples have been described as types of zun, or wine jars. It is fascinating to ponder the significance of the owl in early dynastic China as it was rarely used as a figural subject in Chinese art other than these tomb wares.4 Unlike other animals and birds used to form figural vessels, the owl was not symbolic of a good omen; in fact, it carried quite negative connotations. To the Chinese it was seen as an evil bird. Perhaps these early tomb vessels were fashioned as protectors, because of the owl’s keen night vision. The owl is also known as the bird that captures and carries away the soul, and thus would have been an appropriate subject for a tomb.5

The result of the Oxford thermoluminescence test no. C107n99 is consistent with the dating of this lot.

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