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Ancient Asian Art & Architecture

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  • 0:03 Where Was Ancient Asia?
  • 1:04 Ancient Art in the…
  • 1:42 Architecture in the…
  • 2:47 Ancient Art in China
  • 3:43 Architecture in Ancient China
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Domed stone monuments and wood timber structures. Small bronze figurines and delicate pottery. What do these things have in common? You'll find out in this lesson, as we explore ancient Asian art and architecture.

Where Was Ancient Asia?

Asia is a large diverse region with a long history that includes some of the world's oldest art and architecture. Let's explore a few examples. But first some definitions.

Ancient refers to a vast range of prehistory, sometimes split into three phases: the Stone Age; the Bronze Age, beginning around 3000 BCE when humans discovered metals; and the Iron Age, when cultures developed technology to smelt iron. In China and parts of Asia, the Iron Age started around 600 BCE. Ancient history ends with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE.

The Asian continent includes the Middle East, Far East, and islands like Indonesia and the Philippines. But for this lesson, we're concentrating on the Indus Valley, a region that includes parts of present-day India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; central India; and China. These areas were settled by dominant cultures that impacted others throughout Asia.

Ancient Art in the Indus Valley

Stone Age Asian art includes the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs in caves in central India. These petroglyphs, or rock carvings, are in the shape of cupules, circular indentations in the rock. We don't know what they meant, but they were made purposely by human hands.

By 2500 BCE, Indus Valley civilizations were creating sculptures and vessels of bronze and terracotta, or baked clay. Here's an example of a stylized female figure. Blocky and simplified with an elaborate costume with headdress and belt, she doesn't look like a real person. She was found near Harappa, an Indus Valley city.

Architecture in the Indus Valley

In the Indus Valley and central India, structures were made of available materials like mud brick or stone. Some information on early Indus Valley architecture comes from the remains of Harappa. Protected by a large brick wall, it had public baths and paved streets. Structures included stairs, terraces, and ramps.

Ancient architecture from central India include stupas, or structures that held relics or remains of the Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion. One spectacular example is the Great Stupa at Sanchi. Emperor Ashoka the Great, the first regional ruler to embrace Buddhism, commissioned it in the 3rd Century BCE.

Originally a simple dirt mound, around 150 BCE the Stupa was enlarged and covered with a masonry dome, then enclosed in an elaborate stone fence. Between 75 and 50 BCE, four ornately carved gateways were added. Gateway decorations include lions and elephants, human figures, and decorative spirals. The carvings represent a sophisticated level of skill.

Ancient Art in China

Early Stone Age art from China includes terracotta pots decorated by simple stamped designs. Later, circa 4500 BCE around the lower Yangtze River, came examples of earthenware pottery tempered with charcoal. Tempering is when clay is strengthened with material like bits of shell or charcoal before it is made into vessels and fired. During this time, cultures also carved small figures from bone and ivory.

By around 3000 BCE, cultures in China had developed remarkable craftsmanship in ceramics. A group of people who lived around the Yellow River Valley known as the Longshan Culture, or Black Pottery Culture, made delicate, thin black pottery. Active from around 3000 BCE until circa 1900 BCE, they used a carbonization technique during the firing process that resulted in lustrous eggshell-thin black pottery used for objects like tall ceremonial stem cups.

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