In the spring of 2016, we had the opportunity to work on a collection of ancient Chinese bronze mirrors from the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, in our course “Conservation Laboratory: Metals I (CAEM 234)” taught by Professor David Scott. I conserved a mirror dated from the T’ang period (618-907 CE) which was heavily encrusted with soil and calcite burial deposits (fig. 1). At first it seemed to be a classic example from that period, with eight lobes and decorated with birds, ribbons and flowers – nothing out of the ordinary. But an unusual feature emerged on the decorated surface during the cleaning process.
Gradually, a figure of a man, quite literally peeking out from behind one of the flowing ribbons, emerged from under the layers of sand and calcite – his hat, robe, shoes, and beard all visible (fig. 2). The figure was a complete surprise – clearly part of the original casting though in a completely different style and carefully rendered like a tiny line drawing (fig. 3). Amazed that the figure had popped out of the proverbial woodwork (or rather, metalwork), I went back to the x-radiograph taken before treatment, and even there, the figure was nearly invisible – due to a combination of the overall high opacity of the leaded bronze as well as several casting flaws within the metal which helped to obscure small surface variations.
The search began for comparable examples, but so far, after conferring several experts and pouring over online catalogs at other museums, no similar examples have turned up.
Portable XRF analysis so far indicates that the alloy is within the acceptable ratio of copper, tin and lead for the period. The analysis has also revealed traces of mercury on the mirror-side of the piece, a possible clue that the mirror had been ‘shined’ with tin and mercury – a (non-plating) technique referred to by Zhu Shoukang, He Tangkun, and Nigel Meeks in Metal Plating and Patination: Cultural, Technical and Historical Developments, 1993.
So far, the iconography of this mirror remains a mystery. It is possible it is a later replica made sometime after the T’ang period. With luck and further analysis, the mystery of the “Man in the Mirror” can be further illuminated.
Hayley Monroe ’18
This work will be presented at the upcoming 2017 ANAGPIC Conference