Camel, Northern Wei–Northern Qi dynasty, mid–late 6th century
Earthenware with traces of pigment; H. 9 3/4 in. (24.8 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1928 (28.121)
This camel, bearing wooden slats supporting a saddle over its two humps and awaiting a rider, was created for a tomb. The function of mingqi or "spirit utensils" in the tombs of the Northern Wei (386–534), the Eastern Wei (534–550), and the Northern Qi (550–77) dynasties remained essentially the same since their popularization in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.): to serve the deceased in the afterlife. Large numbers of tomb figurines were common in burials of the northern dynasties and were probably manufactured from molds in large workshops and purchased by families preparing for burials.
While some defining characteristics, such as the gaping nostrils, curving lips, and large, flat hooves, are loyally reproduced, the two-dimensional emphasis on the profile, the smooth surface with minimal depiction of hair, and the curvature of the neck give the beast an appearance that is undulating rather than stately. Camels began appearing in tombs by the third century, and became increasingly common in northern burials from the fifth through eighth centuries. Adapted to their natural habitat in the steppes and mountainous deserts north of China, camels were used to transport military goods to and from the harsh frontier, and as a mount for traders and even members of the upper classes.