Han Dynasty Tomb Brick

Figure 1: Tomb Brick from the Penn Museum

Han Dynasty Tomb Brick

By Lily Nesvold


Tomb bricks, as the name implies, were used to construct tomb chambers. Families would commission the bricks to be manufactured and decorated, and then the finished products would be transported to the burial location. The tomb interior would hold a wooden coffin and gifts, such as ceramic jars, clay tomb figurines, and other pottery wares — everything the occupant needed for the afterlife.

In this article, I will concentrate on a tomb brick from the Han Dynasty that the Penn Museum purchased from E. Gutman in 1931 (fig. 1). In the accession lot, there was one other tomb brick, which is currently in collections storage, but this brick is on loan according to Penn Museum’s digital collection page. This brick is larger than its modern counterparts with dimensions of 46.99 x 57 x 6.99 cm.

The tomb brick was determined to be from the Henan Province (fig. 2a) based on the design, which matches others directly excavated from the province. The Henan Province is significant because it contains the city of Luoyang, the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty in 25 AD and one of the oldest cities in China. Just a few miles from the city are two important sites that provide insight into religion, art, and architecture during and just after the Han Dynasty. Established in 68 AD under Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the White Horse Temple (fig. 2b) is the first Buddhist temple in China according to tradition. Later additions to the area are the Longmen Grottoes (fig. 2c), once-painted rock-cut reliefs, and a cave system that is home to tens of thousands of Chinese Buddhist statues. Though these tomb bricks are not necessarily linked with Buddhism, the rise of the religion in the Han Dynasty may have impacted how tomb bricks were manufactured and painted, and they are, therefore, worth mentioning.

Figure 2a: The Henan Province (colored red) and the city of Luoyang (yellow dot)


 Figure 2b: Baima (“White Horse”) Temple


Figure 2c: Longmen Grottoes

First, it is necessary to provide contextualization to understand this object. The Han Dynasty marks a 400-year period rich in culture and history. Because of a brief interruption by usurper Wang Mang and the Xin Dynasty (9 – 23 AD), the Han Dynasty is separated into two periods: the Western Han (202 BC – 9AD) and the Eastern Han (25 – 220 AD). Many major developments occurred in the reign of the Han, including the opening of the ‘Silk Road’ trading route between China and central Asia (138 – 126 BCE); the extension of the western part of the Great Wall of China (117 – 110 BCE); the ‘Yellow Turban’ rebellion, a peasant revolt against the Eastern Han Dynasty, (184 – 205 AD); and, finally, the first Roman embassy sent to China by Marcus Aurelius in 166 AD, establishing direct contact between the two empires. Because these empires were located so far away from each other (the extent to which is made apparent in fig. 3), it took hundreds of years for their rulers to connect. After the collapse of the Han Dynasty, China was not unified for another 350 years. In the same way that this period saw these major political advancements emerge, so too did its art flourish.

Figure 3: The Roman Empire and Han Empire around AD 1

Having outlined the history of the Han Dynasty, I will now dive into the particulars of the tomb brick. The iconography is of a winged horse, two cranes, and a tree on which a bird sits — all these figures were stamped into the clay. The brick has remains of paint, which is unusual; the colors are earthy pigments applied with a flat wash (i.e., uniformly). The horse was painted maroon and its wings white, the cranes and the blossoms of the tree a cold, pale purple-blue, and small white dots surrounded each cluster on a circle. Another color, yellow ochre, was not found on this tomb brick but was used to paint the tiger on the other tomb brick in the accession lot.

Other tomb bricks from the Han Dynasty also have horses as part of their iconography. Two such examples are on display at the Princeton Museum (fig. 4a) and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri (fig. 4b) — both of which are dated to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 9 AD). However, the depiction of horses is quite different in all three instances. The horse on the Penn Museum’s tomb brick is static, has only two visible legs, a short tail that curves upwards, a snout that points downwards, and an eye that bulges out of its face — many of which are unrealistic attributes in nature. The other two tomb bricks have some similarities that contrast the primitive-looking figure on the Penn Museum’s object — the horse is dynamic, shows all four legs (one of which is raised and bent), and has a longer tail. From there, the characterization of the horses diverges.

Figure 4a: Hollow tomb brick; Western Han dynasty, 206 BC – 9 AD; Princeton Museum
Figure 4b: Tomb brick; Western Han dynasty, 206 BC – 9 AD; Nelson-Atkins Museum

On their top and bottom borders, all three tomb bricks have a lozenge pattern, evenly-spaced diamonds with a small, carved-out dot in the middle of each shape. The thickness of the borders appears to be the same size, but no official measurements are provided for any of the objects. Furthermore, the tree from the brick in the Nelson-Atkins Museum mirrors that of the Penn Museum — a brown trunk, bulbous flowers, and curvy branches. Even the number of flowers is similar — there are three blossoms on each side of the bottom branches (although the number of flowers on the top of the trees is different). But while all the flowers point downward on the tree from the Nelson-Atkins brick, one or two of the flowers on the tree from Penn’s brick face sideways. These small distinctions indicate that different stamps were used to impress the image on the object.

Finally, the representation of tigers, though size and context varies, is largely consistent — three legs placed on the ground with the front left paw raised, head turned backward, and a long tail with a slight bend to it. The tigers on the tomb bricks from the Princeton and Nelson-Atkins Museums resemble the tiger on the tomb brick in the Penn Museum’s accession lot (fig. 5). But rather than portraying a tiger by itself, this object shows a man holding a tiger on a leash, leading the animal or possibly having just lassoed it. Another tomb brick (no picture found) published by Dr. Arthur de Carle Sowerby in China Journal (March 1933) has the same exact tiger down to small markings, and it is believed that the same stamp was used to imprint both figures. Additionally, in the same article, Dr. Sowerby suggested that the presence of a collar might indicate that tigers were used for hunting. Thus, the paintings on these tomb bricks are more than just pretty decoration — they reveal important information about the production of tomb bricks and, more broadly, Chinese culture and civilization.

Figure 5: second tomb brick in the accession lot from E. Gutman


Lily Nesvold (College ’23) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies and minoring in Economics.



Tomb Brick – 31-32-2 | Collections – Penn Museum. (n.d.). www.penn.museum. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://www.penn.museum/collections/object/84860

Fernald, Helen E. 1933. “Two Pottery Tiles from a Han Dynasty Tomb.” The University Museum Bulletin. Philadelphia. The University Museum. Vol. 4. no. 4. pg. 103-107.

Sickman, L., & Soper, A. (1956). The Art and Architecture of China (N. Pevsner, Ed.). Penguin Books. (Original work published 1956).