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Set of Three Knives
Period: Bronze Age, circa ninth to sixth century BC
Culture: Inner Mongolia
Material: Bronze
Dimensions: 19.3, 16.2, 22.5 cm L
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A fine set of bronze knives with interesting form and detail. The first, has a short curving blade and a long handle decorated on both sides with diagonal striations topped by a ring with two zoomorphic heads; the second features a long curving blade with an openwork handle in the form of a recumbent tiger, the animal’s body is defined by diagonal striations that evoke the markings of the feline, while the front and hind legs are demarcated with tear-shaped lines in relief, the claws curved; the third knife again features a long curving blade, the handle is incised with two rows of chevrons and is surmounted by a stylized tiger in profile.

The Bronze Age in Mongolia corresponds to a time in Eurasian prehistory when pastoralism, mobility, and interaction between regional communities increased considerably, and horses became an integral part of ceremonies at impressive ritual and burial monuments throughout the region; these provide an understanding of complex social organizations. From the relatively few radiocarbon dates that have been applied to material of this period, it is possible to tentatively break down the Bronze Age into an early/mid-phase (circa 2500-1500 BC) and a late phase (around 1400-700 BC).

This latter phase is the best known and is sometimes subdivided and extended to include a Late Bronze Age (circa 1400-700 BC) and a Terminal Bronze Age (around 700-400 BC).

The Late Bronze Age represents the peak of monumental construction in Mongolia. These indicate the important social and religious changes taking place in Inner Asia during this time as well as an increasing social interaction over greater areas, shared by their architectural characteristics and ritual practices across vast regions. In the western and central parts of Mongolia, monuments include stone mounds (communal ritual and mortuary complexes), ‘slope’ burials (similar to the latter but smaller in scale), and deer stones (anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and geometric steles); whereas in the eastern and southern regions, shaped burials (‘hour-glass’ graves) and slab burials (burial pits covered with stones and ringed by vertical stone slabs), are more common; although there there is some overlap between these types in the central regions of Mongolia.

Information currently available for Mongolian bronze metallurgy is limited and derives mostly from the Terminal Bronze Age/Early Iron Age. Some studies, based on common alloy compositions and stylistic similarities, suggest links between some Mongolian bronze artefacts and the Karasuk bronze tradition of southern Siberia. More recent analyses also indicate the possibility of several independent metal production centres within the borders of Mongolia. Three main subzones have been identified: the Mongolian Altai region, southern Gobi desert-steppe region, and Khangai forest-steppe region. Of the few detailed studies that exist, analysis of the Baga Gazaryn Chuluu (Middle Gobi/Dundgobi province) bronze knives indicates that the use of arsenic (without tin) is dominant in objects dated to the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age period and that casting was the primary method of fabrication.

Several bronze knives, of a similar date range, forms and diverse styles, from Mongolia/north-eastern China, belong to the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Inv. 24.216.1, 2002.201.10 (eight century BC), 2002.201.7, 2002.201.7, 2002.201.6 (seventh to sixth century BC), 2002.201.24 (fifth century BC)).


Further literature

A fine general study of the Mongolian Bronze Age is presented by J.-L. Houle, Bronze Age Mongolia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

For the form, style, and casting techniques of Mongolian bronze knives, J.G. Park, G. Eregzen, C. Yeruul-Erdene, ‘Technological traditions inferred from iron artifacts of the Xiongnu Empire in Mongolia,’ Journal of Archaeological Science 37 (2010): 2689-2697.


Private Collection, New York, 1980s.
Published: T. Pang, Treasures of the Eurasian Steppes: Animal Art from 800 BC to 200 AD (New York, 1998), pp. 72-76, nos 71,72, 74.