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  • Art and Technology in a Chinese Gold Cicada Plaque
  • Sarah Laursen (bio) and Donna Strahan (bio)

In 2002, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, acquired an exquisite gold plaque with an image of a cicada at its center (MMA 2002.255) (Fig. 1). The plaque is said to be from China and is stylistically similar to several plaques excavated throughout the country, but little or nothing is known of its provenance. Works like this one often bridge gaps in the archaeological record but can be frustratingly difficult to understand without knowledge of their origins. How then should we treat these objects? Should we disregard them? Omit them from our scholarship? In this paper, we, the authors—an art historian and an objects conservator—will describe how we have approached this particular object.1

In the case of this Chinese cicada plaque—one of more than thirty in collections across the globe (Table 1)—we are fortunate to have enough supporting archaeological and documentary evidence to allow us to posit an approximate date and possibly even a geographical source. Although we will never know the precise find-spot of the plaque or to whom it belonged, modern conservation science has enabled us to learn more than ever before. Using analytical laboratory techniques such as scanning electron microscopy, x-ray diffraction, and x-ray fluorescence spectrometry, we can discover its physical composition and provide an expanded view of its artistic construction. These findings, in turn, enrich and inform our understanding of the larger body of cicada plaques in collections in China, Japan, Europe, and the United States.

First, we will provide an overview of the cicada plaques whose findspots are known. Next, we will investigate the Metropolitan plaque’s materials and methods of manufacture. Finally, we will explore the form and iconography of the cicada in order to better understand its function in the context of medieval Chinese society and funerary customs. We hope this first in-depth study of the cicada plaques will encourage the reexamination and scientific analysis of plaques at other institutions in the future.

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Fig. 1.

Cicada plaque, 4th–5th century ce. Gold with gilt copper backing plate and lapis lazuli, turquoise, coral, and glass inlay, 7 cm × 6.5 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Bequest of Dorothy Graham Bennett, 2002. 2002.255.

Cicada Plaques

The Metropolitan plaque consists of a rigid metal backing plate overlaid with an openwork gold sheet that has been embellished with semiprecious stones, coral, glass, and extremely fine gold granulation. At seven centimeters tall, its diminutive size belies the extraordinary richness of its decoration. At its center, an openwork cicada with outstretched wings is enclosed in a square with rounded corners and a pinched peak at the center of the upper edge. The insect’s body, viewed from above, is more compact than one observes in nature, but the details of its anatomy are otherwise accurate: the abdomen has horizontal striations, the contour of the body is visible [End Page 43]

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Cicada Plaques

[End Page 45]

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Fig. 2.

Cicada plaque from west chamber of Tomb 1 at Xiyanchi in Linyi, Shandong, 4th century. Gold with copper backing plate, 4.2 cm. From Shandong sheng wenwu kaogu yanjiusuo and Linyi shi wenhua ju, cover.

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Fig. 3.

Cicada plaque from west chamber of Tomb 1 at Xiyanchi in Linyi, Shandong, 4th century. Gold with copper or bronze backing plate, 4.2 cm. From Shandong sheng wenwu kaogu yanjiusuo and Linyi shi wenhua ju, 14, fig. 22.

through the transparent veined wings, and protruding compound eyes sit atop the lower portion of the face, with a pair of curling antennae positioned above them. The area on either side of the head has been filled in with six beaded lines that may represent legs.

Surrounding the perimeter of the central cicada motif are three concentric bands of ornamentation. The innermost and outermost each contain eighteen inlaid stones in the shape of mushroom caps, while the band between them holds delicate half-palmette vegetal scrolls interspersed with...


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