Engaging Minds, Transforming Lives


Tombs and Treasures

  • News Image
    Art history professor Allison Miller looks at food and charcoal remains from a recently excavated Han dynasty pot found in a tomb in Zhangqiu, Shandong, China, with Li Fang, director of the Zhangqiu city museum. (Photo courtesy of Allison Miller)
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    Art history professor Allison Miller and Li Fang, director of the Zhangqiu City Museum, examine terracotta figurines excavated from auxiliary pits surrounding the Weishan tomb in Shandong Province. (Photo courtesy of Allison Miller)
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    This rock-cut tomb near Qufu, Shandong Province, is one of more than 40 such rock-cut tombs from the Han dynasty that Allison Miller has been studying. Miller's dissertation explores why all of a sudden kings started building this type of tomb when previously nothing comparable existed. (Photo courtesy of Allison Miller)
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    Entrance ramp to the Jiulongshan Tombs near Qufu, Shandong Province. (Photo courtesy of Allison Miller)

Southwestern professor is at the forefront of new research on Chinese art history

China’s booming economy and the resulting construction has had an unexpected side effect – the unearthing of many previously undiscovered archaeological sites. These sites contain a wealth of treasures, including solid jade coffins and body suits in which the deceased were buried. Even the burial sites themselves are providing new clues into Chinese history.

Allison Miller, an assistant professor of art history at Southwestern, is at the forefront of research on these newly discovered tombs and treasures.

Miller, who specializes in Asian art, has been interested in the burial sites of the Chinese ruling elite since she wrote about the topic for her Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard. As a result of contacts she made while she was at Harvard, Miller has been one of the first Western scholars to see items from some of the most recently discovered tombs.

“Right now is very exciting time to work in the field of Chinese studies,” Miller said. “Every year new texts and objects are coming out of the ground and they are changing everything we know about ancient China.”

Miller is particularly interested in tombs from the Han Dynasty, which was one of the most powerful empires of the ancient world. It lasted for more than 400 years, from 202 B.C. to 220 A.D.

“The Han Empire was the Rome of ancient China,” Miller said. “Many of the things that were established during that period set the example for the rest of Chinese history.”

Miller has been looking at the objects the Han emperors put in their tombs, as well as the architecture of the tombs themselves. One tomb that has been a focus of her research is the Lion’s Hill Tomb in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, which was carved out of a limestone hill. A variety of artifacts have been found in the tomb, including a jade coffin, a bodysuit fashioned from pieces of jade, swords, pendants, coins and figurines.

As a result of her research, Miller is working on a book about the western Han tombs. In the past, she said scholars just thought these tombs were built for the afterlife, but she believes they had political implications as well.

“Over time the style of the tombs changed along with what they stored in them,” she said. “I want to focus on how political policies of various emperors changed over time and how they relate to items within the tombs.”

Miller said she is excited to start publishing her research and is getting a good response to it. In 2012, she presented her work at conferences in Canada and Japan. Since she is fluent in Mandarin, Miller also has helped some Chinese scholars translate portions of their papers into English so they will be more available to English-speaking audiences.

Students at Southwestern won’t have to wait for Miller’s book to come out, though. She already is incorporating her research into the classes she teaches, which include Introduction to East Asian Art, Ancient Chinese Art and Civilization, Architecture and Art in China Since 1911, and Landscape in Chinese Art.

−      LeLoni Brown