This striking plaque, remarkable for the preservation of its gilt surface, presents the powerful image of a yak in profile. The creature looks intently ahead, its head focused downwards, its front legs bent and touching the ground, whilst the position of its hind legs indicate movement. The animal is framed by a border decorated with a repeated engraved arrow-head motif. The iconography plays into the so-called ‘animal style’ art, a form of ornament that uses animal and zoomorphic motifs, and is characteristic of the artistic creations of the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppes. This plaque bears witness to the level of artistic skill and diversity of these nomadic craftsmen, who employed elements of contortion, stylization, and realism to powerful visual effect.
The plaque is typical of the style of art from the Ordos culture, which encompasses the regions occupied by nomadic tribes in the northern borders of China and neighbouring Inner Mongolia. Ordos Style refers more generally to the vivid depiction of animals – yaks, rams, deer, and bulls – which were popular motifs among the many nomadic peoples across Eurasia, extending to eastern and central Mongolia and South Siberia. The Ordos region was home to the eastern most inhabitants of Indo-European Eurasian nomads, including the famous Scythians; the vibrant gilding of the present piece and the contorted body of the animal, squeezed into the confines of the frame, are reminiscent of Scythian metalware. Objects such as the present plaque attest to the extent of cultural exchange and artistic expression between the peoples of the western Steppes and China.
Belt ornaments represent one of the most distinctive objects associated with the Eurasian Steppe peoples. They were not only a practical means of holding up and fastening items of clothing, but a necessary and prominent piece of regalia which they adorned with visual symbols that identified the owner’s tribe, rank and status. In these nomadic communities, items of personal adornment would have served as a conspicuous and significant symbol of status in a society for whom constant mobility denied access to more conventional forms of material wealth.
On the Ordos style, W. Watson, The Arts of China to AD 900 (New Haven, 1917), volume 1, p. 77.
For similar plaques, M. Rostovtzeff, The Animal Style in South Russia and China (Princeton, 1929), pls XXV-XXVII; and J. Boardman, The relief plaques of Eastern Eurasia and China: The ‘Ordos Bronzes’, Peter the Great’s Treasure, and their kin, BAR International Series 2146 (Oxford, 2010), pls 177 & 178.
E.C. Bunker, Ancient Bronzes of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections (New York, 1997).
Private Collection, Newn York, 1980s.