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    Members’ Reports

    Jeffrey Moser
    Center 42

    Jeffrey Moser

    Moral Depths: Making Antiquity in a Medieval Chinese Cemetery

    In 2006 archaeologists at the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology in Xi’an, China, were approached by police investigators with news of a tomb robbery in their jurisdiction. The police led the archaeologists to what several subsequent years of excavation would reveal to be the most extensive medieval family cemetery ever discovered in China. Even more extraordinary than the scale of the cemetery is the fact that one of its 29 tombs held the final remains of the Neo-Confucian thinker and antiquarian Lü Dalin (d. 1093). 

    Tomb M3, Lü Family Cemetery, Lantian, Shaanxi, China. Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology

    Widely recognized as a major moral philosopher in his own time, Lü is best remembered today as the author of the Kaogutu (Illustrated investigations of antiquity), from which the modern Chinese term for archaeology (kaogu) partially derives. Featuring drawings and written descriptions of bronze vessels and jade artifacts that were already more than a thousand years old when Lü studied them in the 11th century, Kaogutu is an essential touchstone for understanding the development of Chinese archaeological thought. The excavation of the cemetery demonstrated that Lü’s antiquarian scholarship extended across a whole spectrum of his family’s material practices. Among hundreds of museum-quality artifacts, the excavation uncovered several ancient bronzes dating to the first millennium BCE that the family had collected, inscribed with new elegies and laments, and then reburied with their deceased kin. It also demonstrated that the family knowingly engaged in what we would now call the “looting” of ancient tombs, and that they anticipated that their own tombs would one day be looted. Ultimately, it is this prognosticative quality—the fact that the family anticipated the archaeologists who are now revealing their treasures to the world—that makes the cemetery so significant today. To excavate the buried traces of a medieval family that was itself engaged in the excavation of buried traces is to see oneself in a broken mirror, and to discern alternative ways of fitting past to present.

    Dui vessel with inscription dedicated to Lü Dalin, 1093, stone, recovered from Tomb M2, Lü Family Cemetery, Lantian, Shaanxi, China. Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology

    My present book project, “Moral Depths: Making Antiquity in a Medieval Chinese Cemetery,” focuses on this extraordinary site and the opportunities it affords for rethinking funerary art as a domain of art-historical practice. The past 20 years have witnessed a shift in the field away from a formalist mode that “disinterred” grave goods into discrete, media-specific histories, toward a more integrated endeavor to excavate the symbolic program embedded in the design of the tomb space. The burials in the Lü cemetery resist both of these approaches. Sparing in design and execution, intensely private, and filled with inscribed objects that convey a degree of intimacy far exceeding that of the normative conventions of medieval Chinese funerary inscriptions, they offer less of an outwardly directed social act of symbolic communication than a textured archive of the idiosyncratic ways in which one family attended to the emotional consequences of death. Interpreting the grave goods recovered from the cemetery as traces of personal, individualized responses to moral imperatives, “Moral Depths” aims to resuscitate the humanity of the individuals buried there, and to think through the ethical implications of this humanity for our own efforts to make them knowable by dispossessing them of their buried things. 

    During my time at the Center, I focused on completing two of the book’s four chapters, each of which concerns a single tomb. In “The Brother Who Never Came Home,” I examine the non-burial of Lü Dafang, who died in exile. Despite his physical absence from the cemetery, the emptiness of the tomb space that was constructed for him emblematizes the spatial logic of the cemetery as a whole, demonstrating how the arrangement of the tombs operated as a mechanism to encourage the future reproduction of the family. In “The Scholar Who Robbed the Sages,” I explore another mode of future-making in the tomb of Lü Dalin, who at once despoiled the ancient tombs and anticipated the despoilment of his own. Conjoining multiple pasts and potential futures, the tomb of Lü Dalin presages the self-reflexive conundrums of modern archaeology, bringing into focus the wider ethical reflections of the book. 

    My work benefited immensely from conversations at the Center about the inclusions and exclusions of the archive, the entanglement of many pasts in our poly-vocal present, the intellectual history of our discipline, and our ethical obligations to the subjects we study and the wider communities we serve, among many other topics. I read much at the Center and I emerged from my time there, happily, with a reading list much longer than the one with which I began.

    Brown University
    Paul Mellon Senior Fellow, 2021–2022

    Jeffrey Moser will return to his position as assistant professor of history of art and architecture at Brown University.

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