China, Hongshan culture
H. 3 in. (7.6 cm)
Purchase, The Vincent Astor Foundation Gift, 2009 (2009.176)
This handsomely crafted plaque is one of the rarest examples of jade from the Hongshan culture of Neolithic China (ca. 3500–2000 B.C.), whose jade carving remained unknown until the 1980s. Hongshan jades show an extraordinary command of the material and the techniques of carving it. They are characterized by their intriguing shapes, great attention to detail, phenomenal subtlety of surface, and engaging tactile quality, all of which are well demonstrated in the elegant form, fluent lines, subtle luster, and smoothly modulated grooves of this plaque.
Large ceremonial structures built with rocks and graves lined with stone slabs have been excavated at Hongshan sites in northeastern China. Jade seems to have played a particular role in the culture; most, and often the only, artifacts found in Hongshan burials are jade. Many Hongshan jades are ornaments of some kind: they are either bracelets or pendants or they have fixings or holes that would allow them to be attached to the body or to clothing. But the exact function of several other types, this plaque among them, remains a mystery.