What’s the most interesting object I saw at the New Orleans Museum of Art? A 2,200 year old model found in a Chinese tomb.
The ceramic model was of a multistory manor house and dates back to the Han Dynasty. There wasn’t much information about the piece at the museum, other than to say that it was a “funerary tower”.
Some quick research revealed that these pieces were modeled after homes and palaces of the time. These models were included among the items placed in tombs of royal family members. The tradition seems to resemble the contemporary Chinese practice of burning paper offerings at funerals. These paper offerings are meticulously crafted to resemble real world items, such as brandy bottles, rice cookers and cell phones.
Other Great Reads: Burning Viagra in China to simulate the dead
What was so interesting about the funerary tower at the New Orleans Museum was how gloppy it was, as if it were slapped together by schoolchildren. I don’t say this to demean the item, it was stunning, and this pseudo-amateurishness only made it more so.
It is curious to me that the museum labeled this item a “funerary tower”, because it wasn’t. Funerary towers are actually tall smoke stack or castle-like structures where bodies are buried.
Other Great Reads: A guide to headstones, crypts and other funerary monuments
Funerary Towers of Peru
One of the most interesting examples of funerary towers can be found in the chullpas that dot the Altiplano of Peru. A group of chullpas are found at a site called Sillustani, along the shores of Lake Umayo. These date back to the Aymara people, who were conquered by the Incas in the 15th century. Inside are buried entire families, mostly relatives of Aymara elite. The bodies are curled up in the fetal position and have been mummified because of the heat and dryness. Many tombs have been dynamited by grave robbers but quite a few are still intact and can be visited by tourists.
Funerary Towers of Oman
There are also the Beehive Funerary Towers of Oman. According to the website of travel photographer Andrew Spence, these towers were built 4,500 years ago, during a period of prosperity connected to the Bronze trade.
One series of well-preserved towers exists just outside the community of Jaylah, on the remote Salmah plateau. The site was “discovered” by the German Professor Paul Yule in the late 1980s. The towers are about 12 to 15 feet tall and 9 to 12 feet wide. There is an outer wall, an inner wall and a vertical space in the middle where human remains and possessions were placed. Because of their remoteness, many of the towers are in their original state. And by remote I mean remote!
“The only landmarks are a small grocery store and a small mosque at the right side of the road at the junction,” wrote one user on a travel website for World Heritage sites. “You pass through a small village and then the road takes you for 25km into the desert. There is no sign of civilization for the entire stretch…”
Thank you NOMA for leading me down this wonderful path. For those in New Orleans, the museum is free on Wednesdays, go!