Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History



  • Short sword (duan jian), ca. 4th–1st century b.c.
    Eastern Central Asia
    Steel, bronze, and gold; L. 26 3/8 in. (67 cm)
    Bashford Dean Memorial collection, Funds from various donors, by exchange, 1998 (1998.418)

    From its inception in the third millennium B.C., the sword served equally as a weapon and as a symbol of social status and power. During the first millennium B.C., in the hands of the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes, it became, along with the bow, one of the primary cavalry weapons of the ancient world. Groups such as the Scythians, the Yuezhi, the Xiongnu, and the Xianbei achieved a succession of federations and kingdoms in Eurasia by combining the use of sword and bow with an unparalleled skill in horsemanship. Archaeological investigations of burial sites have established the importance of the sword both as a valued possession and a sign of rank in various nomadic societies. While burial context has made it possible to identify some types of swords with specific nomadic peoples, others, like the example displayed here, are difficult to attribute with certainty. The complex techniques required for the manufacture of this sword, the combined use of bronze and steel, and the presence of gold decoration all indicate its origin in a society with advanced metalworking skills and a relatively high level of material wealth. Swords similar to this one have been found in Yunan in southwestern China and in Ningxia in the northwest. The Ningxia finds also include many other examples of similarly advanced metalworking, suggesting that this sword may have originated in that region, perhaps around the time of the late Warring States period.

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  • Short sword (duan jian), ca. 4th–1st century B.C.
    Eastern Central Asia
    Steel, bronze, and gold; L. 26 3/8 in. (67 cm)
    Bashford Dean Memorial collection, Funds from various donors, by exchange, 1998 (1998.418)

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