Flashback to our Field Trip to the Sackler Gallery Yesterday...
Our class went to see an exhibition about ancient Chinese bells (click here for a link to Freer Sackler website). The curator himself, Keith Wilson, was our very knowledgeable guide. Here are snippets of our conversation with him. When we first sat down with Keith, he showed us a video of some musicians playing an ancient bell set....
Mac: How do they get up there? (referring to musicians)
Keith: They have long sticks, like a mallet. These bells don’t have a piece of metal inside to ring. Instead, they’re played by wooden sticks from the outside. So almost like a drum that you play with wooden sticks. The mallet must have a very long handle so the woman in the back (can) hit the bells on the top right.
Cassius: What happened to that bell?
Keith: It’s just a different type from all the others. It’s the biggest bell in the set. It’s kind of like a bass bell. It would have the lowest sound.
Alex: What are those decorations?
Keith: The stand that the bells are having from was made from wood, and the wood was painted.
Mac: I see like a little zig zag. On the top bell.
Keith: Does that look like a number?
(Several people): Three!
Keith: Yeah, I don’t know why they wrote “three” on those bells... I think it might mean like (gestures) one, two, three, like the sections, so they wrote that number on the bell so when they were re-hanging the set they knew where belonged on the stand. Because you can see it would be really easy to get confused about where a bell should be placed with this many in the set. So they must have written numbers on there just so they knew how to put it back together.
Alex: Like if one came out. And then another one came out, and you don’t know which one is which.
Keith: Luckily because they’re different designs, different shapes, different sizes… You can see they’re arranged with the smallest one on the left.
Mac: I see one and I see two, and three, four, five…
Cassius: What if the whole stand falls down and they all get mixed up?
Keith: That would be terrible! You know, they wanted to prevent that from happening, so this horizontal parts, the beams, the ones that go from right to left, that the bells are hanging from, that’s wood. But at the corners, they wanted to make sure the set was secure so there are metal pieces that help hold it up at the corners, so it would have been much stronger, so the bell set probably wouldn’t have fallen over. They had this really strong structure with metal at the corners and wooden beams.
Rose: Since that’s made out of wood, they could have nailed that to the wall.
Keith: Except… you need to get behind them to play them - you see, some musicians are behind (the bells) and some are in front. So they needed to have it open and standing freely so you could get around the whole thing. So I think that’s why they didn’t nail it to the wall.
Mac: What if … the numbers go one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
Keith: Yeah, I think the numbers are referring to these different sets. There are so many bells, they probably weren’t all made at the same time. In ancient times, they were probably made in groups and they were assembled as a set over a number of years.
Siobhan: Where in China were the bells?
Keith: It’s central China, about 200 miles west of Shanghai. Along the Yangtze River… This is the largest set that we know of from China, it’s made around 500 B.C. Obviously the patron here was a music lover. It was found in his tomb, so he took the bell set with him into the afterlife. And sadly he took his musicians with him too!
Mac: Why was he buried in a tomb?
Keith: He was buried in a huge tomb. If you all want to see this picture over on the wall, you can see how big the tomb is. (We all move to see a picture on the wall) If you look closely you can see a truck and a whole bunch of people. Does that give you a sense of how big the tomb is? That’s the roof of the tomb, because the tomb was underground. To support the ground above the tomb, they made a wooden ceiling. And on top of the wooden ceiling they would replace the dirt. So it would have been underground. The burial chamber would have been below the wooden ceiling. Here in the middle, in the largest part of the tomb, was where (archaeologists) found the bell set, the bell stand, and all the other musical instruments.
Mac: That’s the whole tomb?
Keith. That’s the whole tomb. The actual tomb occupant, the main guy who was buried in this tomb was buried in this area over here. The instruments were in the center, almost like a living room or a concert hall. Over here, this area would have been for storage. They designed the tomb to have different functions to reflect the uses of the tomb in the afterlife for the person who’s buried there.
Joci: What does that remind you of? Who else goes into the afterlife?
Joci: Right, in Egypt. That’s what we’ve been studying.
Bruno: (to Keith) Where is the afterlife?
Keith: The Chinese thought that there was a place underground that was where the afterlife was, and I think that might be why they might make underground tombs.
Cassius: What if they popped out of the tomb?
Keith: Chances are they wouldn’t pop out… because they’re... resting.
Bruno: No, they’re dead.
Keith: I know, but if you believe in the afterlife, the soul is still alive. The soul has life in it. That’s what the Chinese thought. That’s why they would put all this stuff in the ground. I mean if you think about it today, we wouldn’t bury our treasure unless we wanted to get it back, right? The Chinese buried this treasure because they thought they were going to get it back in the afterlife. They thought they could use this bell set after they died, their spirits could have heard the music, the spirits of the musicians could have played the music. So there was a sense that the afterlife was kind of like THIS life.
Mac: What if a person was in disguise as a mummy?…. What if a mummy was in disguise as a person, and the mummy started to play the bells? And then he had the long stick and he banged it so hard it fell over?
Keith: They did bury the sticks with the bell set, so yeah, the occupant could have come alive and actually played the bell set in the tomb.
(We continue into the next room to the bronze “tigers")
Keith: Can you guys see the hole in the backs at the center of each tiger? I have a feeling that these tigers may have been the base for a couple of support and cross beams. These might have been at the corner of a small bell set. Because… these are super heavy. Why would you make something that weighs 75 pounds? It’s heavier than any of you, I bet! It would have been sensible to have something heavy like that to anchor the bottom of the bell set.
Today, Rose and Cassius observe the Chinese bells brought to school by Cassius' family.
Rose - They look just like the ones in the museum.
Lucy's interpretation of the tiger statues.
Progress on Hadley's Birthday Committee...