Place of Origin: Tibet
Date: Late 19th Century to Early 20th Century
L-Shaped Element’s Overall Length: 147mm
Square Element’s Overall Length: 40mm
These two highly unusual iron elements are from a Tibetan horse bridle. The largest piece is a T-shaped plaque which would sit on the junction of the headstall straps. It depicts a large dragon (a common theme in Tibetan ironwork) and a unicorn (Tib. bse ru). The depiction of the unicorn in this application is highly unusual, and the pony-like stature of the animal suggests it is inspired by a typical Tibetan horse known as a Nangchen horse—a small breed native to the Kham region and thought to have been thoroughbred since the 9th century. They became known to the western world as late as 1994 due to the exploration of French anthropologist Michel Peissel (1). Powerful and fast, they are said to contain no ancestry from any of the common sources of other Tibetan pony breeds, nor Mongolian, Arabian or Turkish horse blood (2).
The smaller square element was probably used at the end of one of the straps and depicts a bird with its head facing backwards. It is likely a heron, with a characteristic head-crest.
The bifurcating scrolls which provide background decorations for both elements are used widely on Tibetan ironwork and provide a useful tool for dating. The larger symmetrical scrolls we see here are indicative of 19th and 20th century production, although the overlapping that can be seen is a slightly earlier trait. In addition to these findings, the unusual depictions of animals help us place the object’s date in the later centuries, when craftsmen began to break earlier boundaries.
The traces of copper on the surface give us our final clue to dating the object, and they are an indication that the pieces were once gilded. La Rocca (3) explains that mercury gilding (also called fire gilding) is a technique used for applying gold to silver, bronze or copper alloys. However, La Rocca observes that it does not appear to have been used on Tibetan objects made of iron until the late 19th or early 20th century. Mercury gilding is executed with a paste (amalgam) made from gold and mercury. This is applied to a ground that has been coated with a thin layer of copper or copper sulphate. The work is then fired, which drives off the mercury, and the fine layer of gold remaining is then burnished. The use of such plaques and elements can be seen on a bridle in the Metropolitan Museum which is also dated to the 19th or 20th century: acc.no.2003.230.1-.3a-e (4).
These bridle elements are mounted on a contemporary Perspex stand.
(3) La Rocca, Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armour of Tibet, 2006, p.15, no.124.
(4) La Rocca, Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armour of Tibet, 2006, p.236, no.124.