Belt Plaque in the Shape of a Crouching Horse

Date: 3rd–1st century B.C.

Culture: North China

Medium: Silver

Dimensions: H. 3 3/16 in. (8.1 cm); L. 5 11/16 in. (14.5 cm)

Classification: Metalwork

Credit Line: Gift of Ernest Erickson Foundation, 1985

Accession Number: 1985.214.78


Intriguing metal artifacts such as this silver plaque and scattered references in Chinese and Western histories are our only sources of information about the numerous pastoral, seminomadic, and horse-riding tribes that inhabited the vast reaches of Central Asia traversed by the Silk Road.
Most likely used as an adornment on a bridle or other equine accoutrement, this small plaque illustrates the dissemination of artistic motifs across Asia. The beaklike shape of the horse's muzzle, the dramatic twist of its hindquarters, and the lively openwork frame all reflect an imagery and stylistic approach found in objects made earlier by Indo-European Scythian peoples living on the Iranian plateau and in the area around the Black Sea. Comparable motifs appear in tattoos on the body from tomb 2 at Pazyryk, in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia. Eight of the twenty-five burial mounds (kurgan) at that site, currently dated between the late fourth and early third century B.C., have yielded textiles and metalwork from West and Central Asia as well as silk, lacquer, and metalwork from China.
This plaque was cast in silver and has remnants of gilding on its surface. It was probably made in North China for a member of the Yuezhi or one of the other confederacies in Central Asia that maintained an active trade with various Chinese centers, exchanging furs and carpets for commodities such as grain and luxuries such as silk or metalwork.