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6.6.2 Belt buckle with paired felines attacking ibexes

Gold metalwork belt buckle

Xiongnu artisan
circa 3rd–2nd century BCE

Belt buckle with paired felines attacking ibexes, Xiongnu, 3rd-2nd century BCE, Accession Number 17.190.1672. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Xiongnu were a confederation of nomadic clans who lived on the steppe and desert lands north and west of Han China. They were pastoral herders and warriors on horseback. They traded with the farming people of Han China and also raided into Han lands and stole crops and valuables. Han Chinese also took away Xiongnu land for farms. To keep the Xiongnu out, the first Qin emperor had built the Great Wall, and the Han emperors sent armies to defeat the Xiongnu. What shapes do you see in the design of this belt buckle? The Chinese called the Xiongnu barbarians, but what does this belt buckle show us about their culture?

The shapes in the belt buckle are two large cats — perhaps panthers — biting the throats of two ibexes. There are also half-circle and oval shapes on the edges. The belt buckle was made from gold and shows a high level of craftsmanship in fine metalwork. Remind students of the critical role that nomads played in the interconnection of Afroeurasia. They often carried products and innovations from one settled culture to another, often invading settled lands and conquering them. Emphasize the dual role of the Xiongnu as formidable warriors threatening China and as traders and transporters of trade goods between cultures. There would have been no overland Silk Road without the Xiongnu and other nomads. You might also tell students that the Han government expanded its territory into the southern grazing lands of the Xiongnu. From the Xiongnu perspective, the Chinese were the invaders.