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Artifacts from Museum’s Collections Offer Clues to Two-Thousand-Year-Old Cooking Methods

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How do we know what people living in China 2,000 years ago ate, and how they cooked their food? 

Ethnographic objects can offer important clues about daily life during the Han Dynasties (226 BC to AD 220). Artifacts from the Museum’s collections featured in the new exhibition Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture include examples of ming qi (“ming chee”)—miniature household objects, such as food samples and cooking tools, that people during the Han Dynasties often included in tombs of the dead to provide comfort and sustenance in the afterlife.

Miniature pottery decorated stove

The ornamental motifs on this miniature funerary stove, made in China during the Han Dynasties (226 BC to AD 220), include the outlines of gourd-shaped spoons, which were common at the time. 

Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History 70/11856 AB


Some Han cooks used larger versions of earthenware stoves like this one. 

Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History 70/12789

Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History 70/12789


The larger versions were often fueled by wood, which created very high heat. Pots fit tightly into openings atop the stove; this close fit helped harness the fuel of the fire efficiently and allowed for high-temperature cooking. In parts of rural China today, this type of stove is still used.

The small replicas below are modeled after grain towers from the Han Dynasties; one of these is now on display in Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture.

Replica miniature grain tower with pig

These miniature grain towers are replicas of ones made by people living during the Han Dynasties (226 BC to AD 220), in China.

  

Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History 70.0/169


A meal eaten 2,000 years ago in Han China would almost surely have included grains—likely rice, millet, winter wheat, or barley. Each year, grain farmers stored their crop in locked or elevated towers, and they might also have allowed grain to drop out to feed their animals, like the long-eared pigs seen here.

In addition to these objects, the Museum’s anthropological collections include a number of other ming qi, some collected by indefatigable ethnographer Bernard Laufer, on an expedition to China from 1901 to 1904, during which he collected more than 6,500 objects.

To see more from the Museum's anthropological collections, visit the Museum's new exhibition, Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture.

The exclusive corporate sponsor for Our Global Kitchen is J. P. Morgan.

Additional support for Our Global Kitchen and its related educational and online resources has been provided by GRACE Communications Foundation. The Kitchen Experience is presented by Whole Foods Market.

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