Deciphering the puzzle: The examination and analysis of an Eastern Han Dynasty money tree

John Steele, Leon Stodulski, and Karen Trentelman


Money Trees of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 A.D.) are funerary objects so named because of their cast bronze leaves laden with representations of coins. In addition to coins, the leaves also contain images of mythological figures and objects important to Han beliefs. Currently, there are only four known Money Trees outside of China, one of which the DIA was fortunate enough to acquire in 1996. The DIA’s Money Tree, when fully assembled, stands approximately 4 feet high, consisting of 34 leaves and a finial attached to a pole inserted into a glazed ceramic base. The leaves of the tree are very thin and fragile, and have undergone several restoration campaigns during their long life. In this study, we have carried out a thorough examination and materials analysis of the component parts of the Money Tree in order to unravel its complex history.

Extensive research was conducted on both the metal and ceramic parts of the Money Tree. The ceramic base was sampled for dating by thermoluminescence analysis: the results were consistent with dates for the Eastern Han Dynasty. Analysis of the structural and material composition of the metal components was conducted using X-radiography, X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction (XRD), Raman microspectroscopy and scanning electron/energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM/EDS).

X-radiography showed that many of the leaves had been extensively repaired and that some sections, and even a few whole leaves, had been reproduced in materials other than bronze. XRF analysis revealed that the pole and two of the leaves were reproduced entirely of a brass alloy. It was also discovered that sections of some leaves and the entire finial had been reproduced in a lead-tin alloy, artificially patinated to simulate bronze corrosion. Despite the discovery of some “modem” reproductions on the Tree, the majority of the leaves are composed of bronze alloy consistent with Chinese bronzes of the Han Dynasty.

Stylistic analysis of the leaves suggested that they may have originated from at least five different Han Money Trees. Analysis of the bronze alloy and corrosion products was performed, in part, to investigate if there was any correlation between the composition and style of the leaves. Of the several types of repairs visible on the leaves, some correlate to a particular style while others are present on multiple style groups. Therefore, the complicated story of this rare and interesting object can only be deciphered by integrating investigations of the stylistic detail, material composition and previous treatment history.

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1997 | San Diego | Volume 5