The Xiongnu Period in Northern China spanned the late third century BC to the first century AD. The Xiongnu created a great confederation uniting the peoples of the eastern Eurasian steppes, with influence stretching to Southern Siberia and Mongolia. They adapted the animal art of the earlier Eurasian nomadic groups, but incorporated familiar animals, and the various hunting and herding peoples retained their distinctive regional culture, customs and symbolic systems. Such cultural diversity produced a diversity of objects in different styles across the region.
Each of these ornaments shows a squatting fore-shortened bear. They feature a simple horizontal bar across their diameter that is flush with the edge for attachment, and may have been part of a group of appliqués designed to decorate an elaborate ceremonial headdress or other garment. Bears inhabited the forests of Northern China and became an extremely popular motif, especially on small objects. Ornaments decorate with bears have been found as far north as Buryatia in Transbaikalia and as far south as the tomb of the king of Nanyue in Guangdong province. Bear plaques have been found at Xiongnu and Chinese sites of the Western Han Period. It has been suggested that depictions of real animals, as opposed to fantastical and hybrid beasts, on artistic creations of the Xiongu represent clan relationships. Interesting parallels are displayed in the Arthur Sackler Museum (inv nos V-3731 and V-3717).
Published: T. Pang, Treasures of the Eurasian Steppes: Animal Art from 800 BC to 200 AD (New York, 1998), p. 138, no. 149.