Previous Home Next
Roof Tile End with Double Crows 双鸟纹半瓦当

Roof Tile End with Double Crows
Pottery Designs from the State of Yan in the Warring States Period 战国燕

Pottery is the basis of civilization. Ok, usually people say that fire is most important and it is true that you need fire before you can get pottery, but I am not writing about fire, I am writing about pottery, ipso facto pottery achieves importance. The modern sense of the word conjures images of hippy kilns turning out brown things, or later Yuppie kilns turning out more colorful things. Today pottery is seen as a minor decorative accessory and is thus dismissed. Pottery is and was much more than that. It allowed our distant ancestors to carry, store, and cook food. It was used for cooking vessels, certainly, but it was also used for the roof, floors, sidewalks, walls, wall decorations, gutters, sewers, and furnaces. It was and continues to be a major building material in China and much of the rest of the world. It was the foundation for the first great public works as water was brought under control to either deliver it or to take it away from villages and later, cities. It gave early man a pliable, moldable, stable, and durable material to express both his engineering and artistic creative impulses.

One of the most common uses for pottery was the roof tile. Finding methods to build durable, dry, and warm homes was necessary before man could leave the caves and establish permanent settlements. There are many more roof tiles on a house than there are pots inside the house. They were so common and abundant, most were destroyed or discarded even in modern archaeological digs because they don't add additional insight and are common. The end tiles of some buildings are the exception. The edge or end tiles on a Chinese roof are sometimes decorated, making them unique or pretty, thus some are preserved in museums. It is seldom that you see as many displayed or as well. The tiles can tell us a lot about the society, the myths, the status of a building, the spread of artistic style, and help place villages in the correct cultural tradition, especially during the Neolithic Period.

Tiles are extremely durable and shed water. They provide moderate insulation. In Chinese construction they overlay a wooden frame. Tiles are laid in overlapping lines with their ends contained in reverse tiles (See picture of roof, below). The style creates a natural gutter between each of the rows of tiles. Each row is then closed off at the end with a decorative tile. In the picture the end tiles are not decorated because it was a working class neighborhood. If there had been any decorative tiles they might have been removed because the neighborhood had been scheduled for demolishion for over a decade. A second picture is included below of a new modern country house in an agricultural area. The whole village moved and built new houses so they could include conveniences like electricity, cable, sewers, and running water. They still chose to use roof tiles but the design has been modernized and closer to shingles and does not require tile ends.

The ancient tile ends come in either half tile or full round end. Both are included in the collection. The shape of the tile end influences the choices of design and pattern on a tile. The half tile end shown above demonstrates a very common approach to the half tile. The mirror image is used to create symmetry. The decorations on ancient tiles vary widely and show us the symbols and styles that were popular at the time. The end tiles were connected to a half-circle tube to attach it to the roof. You will see more complete end tiles later in the series. When unearthed, the tube is often broken and it has been a common practice for collectors to keep the decorative end for preservation and discard the tube. On the following pages most of the tile ends will have been cut from the tube.

Don't read too much into the use of one symbol over another. While we might know that a certain symbol meant fertility or protection, the original householder might simply have liked the style, just as we might buy a pineapple knocker for our front door without thought to its symbolic meaning. One thing you can be sure of, for the most part people are people. When you go to build a house you look around the neighborhood and see things you like and include them in your house. Sometimes because you like the looks and sometimes because you like the symbol.

There are two birds on the half tile above. The museum listed these as double crows in English, but the Chinese character simply means bird. These birds are probably just general birds symbolizing wealth and good harvest or the artist just liked birds.

This tile end dates to the Warring States period and was found in the area of the Yan State, in what is now modern Beijing and Hebei province.

Ancient Ceramic Civilization Museum 古陶文明博物馆

The following pages contain exhibits from the Ancient Ceramic Civilization Museum 古陶文明博物馆, No.12 South Caiyuan West Street , Xicheng District, Beijing. It is quite close to Da Guan Yuan, a large park in the south of Beijing. 南菜园西街12号 . It is a private museum owned by an artist named Lu Dongzhi (路东之) who began collecting in the 1980s. His collection now consists of thousands of items, mostly from neolithic and bronze age eras. He opened the Ancient Ceramic Civilization Museum in 1997. Lu Dongzhi has at least two nonprofit museums and charges a minimal entry fee. The museum helps to preserve and protect the items as well as allowing him to share his love for history and the peoples of the past. The museum is licensed under the Beijing government.

I have included this collection under Beijing History because of its large collection of artifacts from the Yan State and Yan culture. Overall, the museum draws upon items from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages from all across ancient China.

Above: A roof on the way to destruction, but you can see how the traditional tiles are laid.

Below: Modern roof tiles are much flatter and act more like shingles.

China Index >> Historical Beijing in Pictures >> Neolithic and Early Dynasty Pottery and Roof Tiles

Click on a picture or use the arrows at the top to navigate through the site.
Last update: September 2013
© Marilyn Shea, 2013