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228. Recumbent Camel

China, Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)
H:19 cm L: 29 cm
TL tested by Oxford, UK

Provenance: Private Collection, UK

A pottery figure of a reclining camel, its legs folded under its body, the tail between the hind legs. The head, with a friendly expression, is turned slightly to the left. The ears are folded back, its mouth closed and the slightly bulging eyes are wide open. Between the humps is a detachable, satchel, supposedly filled with merchandise. Fur details are clearly modelled at the neck, head and top of the legs. The whole is made of grey terracotta, covered in beige and white pigments.

During the Tang dynasty (618-906), great cultural, economic and diplomatic achievements were made by the Chinese. The Silk Road had become the most important factor of this prosperous period, connecting the Far East to Western civilizations. It was along this route that, merchants, explorers and monks travelled, exchanging foreign products such as silk, tea and ceramics for horses, spices and perfumes. By far the best means to make this long trip was by camel.

The two-humped Bactrian camel (luo tuo) - or ‘true’ camel - came to China from Central Asia, and for many centuries was used as a beast of burden along the silk road. Camels had the ability to carry up to 450 kg of cargo, while travelling 45 - 50 km per day. The soft cushions under their three toes, ensure they do not sink into the hot desert sand, as well as giving them grip in rocky areas. Their long double set of eyelashes, nostrils which can be closed and thick hair in their ears, protects them against the sand and dust. The reserves in the camels’ humps, ensures it can go up to nine days without water or food. They are also very adept at locating water sources and avoiding sand storms in the desert. These special traits, ensured they were indispensable for travelling the treacherous east-west trade routes across the arid desert. The importance of the camel to the wealth of the traders, would explain why Tang period art is particularly rich in representations of the camel - either with and without riders and baggage.

A comparable reclining camel is in the collection of the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Cologne. A similar camel – with baggage and rider - is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (Acc. Nr. 2015.500.7.5).

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