Arte-Factual: Kansu Burial Urn

Time for another edition of Arte-Factual! Last time, we looked at the killer whale bottle from Tomb Raider: Anniversary and learnt a little about the Nasca, their spiritual beliefs, and their artistic traditions.

This time, we’ll be taking a close look at one of the many collectable items found on Yamatai in Tomb Raider 2013: the Kansu burial urn.

The Kansu burial urn as seen in Tomb Raider 2013
The Kansu burial urn as seen in Tomb Raider 2013.
Photo credit: Brandon Klassen, Tomb Raider HQ Archives.

The “Kansu burial urn” bears a striking resemblance to a ceramic jar in the Asia Society’s collection, a Banshan type storage jar that dates back to China’s Neolithic Period and which was most likely discovered in Gansu Province in north-west China. Banshan type pottery is named after Banshan, an archaeological site in Gansu’s Guanghe County, which was the major settlement of Yangshao culture between 2600 and 2300 BC. Yangshao culture is named after the village of Yangshao in Henan Province, where the first representative settlement of this Neolithic culture was discovered in 1921 by the Swedish geologist and archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson.

Yangshao culture developed along the banks of the Yellow River, widely regarded as the “cradle of Chinese civilisation”, and flourished for a period of approximately 3,000 years. It was an agricultural economy based on the cultivation of millet and supplemented by animal husbandry, hunting, and fishing. There is some debate as to whether the Banshan phase should be regarded as one of the later cultural phases of Yangshao culture or  the last three cultural phases of Yangshao culture – Majiayao, Banshan, and Machang – should be classified as a separate culture (Majiayao culture). This is due to the cultural shift from the Yellow River basin in central China to the upper Yellow River regions of Gansu, Qinghai, and Ningxia in north-west China towards the end of the 4th millennium BC.

Due to various cultural similarities, Majiayao culture is commonly considered to be a continuation or an offshoot of Yangshao culture. Archaeologists believe that the shift towards north-western China may have been the result of population growth and the need for new farming land. Over 2,200 Majiayao sites have been identified in the past century, though only a small fraction of these have been excavated and studied by archaeologists. So the relationship between the Yangshao and Majiayao cultures is not yet fully understood.

But let’s get back to the object in question, the urn. Banshan type ceramics were mass-produced, mostly buff coloured (i.e. a pale yellowish-brown). They were often ovoid or globular in shape with two small handles (or lugs) attached to the body, and painted with black or maroon slip made from clays containing natural umbers and ochres.

Banshan vessels were created using the coil method. The artisans would roll clay into cords, which were then stacked and joined together in order to build up the desired vessel shape, one coil layer at a time. The coil layers and joins would be smoothed and blended together with a paddle to strengthen the vessel’s walls and create a smooth outer surface that could be burnished and decorated. A step by step tutorial demonstrating the coil method can be found here.

A Banshan type jar, part of the Asia Society's collection of Neolithic earthenware (Image credit: Asia Society)
A Banshan type jar, part of the Asia Society’s collection of Neolithic earthenware. Image credit:Asia Society.

Once the surface had been burnished, natural, abstract, or geometric designs could be applied by brush.  Banshan pottery was characterised by the use of curvilinear swirls encompassing geometric shapes, but waves and net designs (such as the criss-cross pattern seen on the neck of the urn) were also quite widely used. Perhaps these symbolised the important role that China’s rivers and fishing played within Neolithic communities. The undecorated lower halves of Banshan vessels have led some archaeologists to draw parallels between Banshan and Greek Proto-Geometric pottery, but the reason for leaving the lower halves undecorated remains unknown.

Banshan vessels were not simply used as grave goods. A large number of them have been excavated from the ruins of domestic dwellings, suggesting that they may have been used for storing food. Archaeologists have noted, however, that vessels intended for burial purposes were often of better quality and more intricately decorated than those used for storage. Urns similar to the one seen in Tomb Raider 2013 would have been buried with the deceased along with several other pots and a number of personal effects, such as spindle whorls for women and axes, chisels, and other tools for men.

Coming back to the Kansu burial urn seen in the game, Lara correctly surmises that the urn is of Chinese origin and is thousands of years old. However, it’s extremely unlikely that a Neolithic culture, especially one that was confined to central and north-western China, would have been trading with or visiting Japan or the kingdom of Yamatai. The first references to the Japanese archipelago in Chinese historical texts date back to the 1st century AD, nearly 3,000 years after the real urn had been made.

It’s certainly possible that the urn had been taken to Yamatai at some point after the 3rd century AD, which is when the first Chinese delegation reportedly visited this mysterious nation. Perhaps the delegates had offered the urn as a gift to Queen Himiko. Or perhaps it was part of the cargo on one of Kublai Khan’s lost ships. Or perhaps some other hapless adventurer-turned-grave robber had “acquired” the urn before finding themselves stranded on the island.

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a translator, editor, writer, and gamer with a passion for archaeology, foreign languages, cultural heritage, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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