About the Shosoin Treasures
The majority of the Shosoin Treasures are considered to date from the eighth century, and have such unique historic attribution and provenance (see History of the Shosoin and About the Shosoin Repository for details). These artifacts, ranging from the works of arts and crafts to the important documents, manuscripts and sutras, were produced domestically or imported from the continent across the sea.
The number of the treasures preserved until today exceeds 9000 items. The treasures encompass a range of artifacts that reveal the social and cultural life of the Nara period: manuscript, stationery, decorative arts, musical instruments, game kit, Buddhist implements, ritual implements, arms and armour, garment and accessories, artisan tools, incense and medicine, etc. Various types of materials and techniques are used there, and one can see examples of metalwork, woodwork, lacquer-work, embellishment with tortoiseshell and horns, ceramic, glass and textile, presenting the entire scope of artisan works. The complicated techniques applied, such as heidatsu (metal-sheet inlay used in lacquer-work), mokuga (marquetry), raden (mother-of-peal inlay), bachiru (engraved design on a colored ivory), sancai (three-color glaze) and shippō (cloisonné enamel) witness the accomplished skills of craftsmen at that time. To list a few of the well-known pieces:
- Kokka chinpō chō (North Section No. 158): “List of Rare Treasures of the State” stating the purpose and contents of the offerings by the Empress Kōmyō in 756.
- Torige ritsujyo no byōbu (North Section No. 44): a set of folding screen panels with bird feathers decorating the painting of a lady under a tree, depicting the image of feminine beauty popular at that time.
- Gogen no biwa (North Section No. 29): elaborate five-stringed biwa lute, the only surviving example of the kind.
- Hakururi no wan (Middle Section No. 68): cut glass bowl possibly made in the Middle East, symbolizing the Silk Road trade.
- Saikaku no nyoi (South Section No. 51-5): Buddhist scepter made of rhinoceros horn embellished with gold, quartz and pearl.
- The oldest example of household register from Taihō 2 (702).
- Woven silk textiles with exotic motifs such as a scene of hunting.
The intrinsic quality of the treasures is not only their aesthetics, but also the associating contexts they convey. On a number of objects, an inscription was originally written to specify when it was made and in which occasion it was used. This substantial information enables us to interpret the objects in context, and also to identify the reference material for comparative study.
Another significant characteristic of the treasures is that their preserved-condition is remarkable. Commonly, surviving examples of ancient artifacts are those recovered from the ground. On the contrary, the Shosoin artifacts had been stored in the repository since their early history, and cared for by personnel through periods. This allows them to survive over 1200 years despite the local climate condition in which organic materials are difficult to remain on a long-term basis.
The Shosoin Repository is often said to be the eastern end of the Silk Road. In the Nara period, the nation had embraced the culture of the Tang Dynasty, China which had flourished by encountering those developed in the other parts of the world through the Silk Road trade. Obviously, the trade had facilitated the movements of materials and also exchanges of ideas between the East and West. New materials, techniques and designs were merged into the existing ones, resulting in local technological adaptions and developments. Among the treasures, both domestic and imported ones contain the evidence of such cultural exchanges, and particularly see the influence of the West including Iran, Greece, Rome and Egypt. The Shosoin Treasures reflect the cultural achievement in the Nara period, as well as the other parts of the world during the eighth century.