An Ochre & Straw-Glazed Pale Pottery Bactrian Camel

Tang Dynasty 唐 (618-907)

26 ½ inches high

Provenance: A Private Florida Collection

Sotheby’s New York, 12 June 1984, lot 189, Estate of Erna Levi Dreyfuss


Standing four-square on a rectangular base with head raised turning slightly to it’s right in a braying action, the head tufts, throat, humps, tail and the top of the legs straw-glazed and ruffled, the rest of the body with a rich ochre glaze pooling darkly in places, each hump falling naturalistically to one side.


This is an exceedingly realistic un-caparisoned camel, of a type seen all along the famed ‘Silk Route’ stretching from China to the eager markets of Central Asia, Samarkand, Persia and Syria. In the Tang Dyansty (618-907) camels really did live up to the description of them as ‘ships of the desert’ and were used to transport goods, including silk, across the difficult terrain. Camels can be seen as symbolic of the cosmopolitanism of the Tang capital at Xian (Chang’an). They carried on their return journeys, many of the exotic luxuries from the west that were desired by the sophisticated Tang court.

The two-humped Bactrian camel was known in China as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD), having been brought from Central Asia and Eastern Turkestan as tribute. Its amazing ability to survive the hardships of travel across the Asian deserts was soon recognized and Imperial camel herds were established under the administration of a special Bureau. These Imperial camel herds, numbering several thousand, were used for a range of state duties, including the provision of a military courier service for the Northern Frontier. Camels were not only prized as resilient beasts of burden, their hair was also used to produce a cloth admired for its lightness and warmth.


Not surprisingly, this type of model was made to be placed in the tombs of the Tang elite in the first half of the 8th century, and provide an obvious indication of the wealth of a family who could afford to inter such costly goods.