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Roof Tile with Phoenixes Holding a Garland
Roof Tile with Phoenixes Holding a Garland, 8th century
Korean
Earthenware with molded decoration
2 5/8 x 9 3/4 x 6 5/8 inches (6.7 x 24.8 x 16.8 cm)
Gift of Colonel Stephen McCormick, 1985
1985-81-5
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About These Tiles

These two molded tiles once served as decorative eave endings to a ceramic tile roof on a Korean building. Roofs and ceilings are important focal points of many traditional East Asian structures. Roofs often extend several feet beyond the walls of the structure, creating large, overhanging eaves. These two tiles would have been part of the decorated outer edge of such an eave.

Ceramic roof tiles were introduced to Korea from China around the first century BCE By the time these two examples were made, during the Silla kingdom (57 BCE–668 CE) and Unified Silla dynasty (668–935), Korean ceramic tile roofs had reached their peak in intricacy and design. Roofs made from interlocking ceramic tiles kept cold air, wind, and rain from entering a house. Due to their heavy weight, the structure supporting the roof had to be very strong. Expensive to produce, tile roofs were typically found on the homes of aristocrats and government officials, and on Buddhist and Confucian ceremonial buildings.

The designs on the tiles were appreciated not only for their beauty but also for their power as symbols of security and prosperity.The circular tile (Roof End Tile) includes an image of a lotus blossom with three tiers of six petals radiating from the center. The lotus, a sacred Buddhist flower, symbolizes purity. The long, curved tile (Roof Tile), now partially broken, once contained the image of two long-tailed birds—perhaps mythical phoenixes—flying toward each other, flanking a central blossom. Each bird holds a flower in its beak. The central blossom, again a lotus, is surrounded by green foliage, and a band of raised small dots surrounds the tile.

Roof End Tile with Lotus Flower Design
Roof End Tile with Lotus Flower Design, 8th century
Korean
Earthenware
1 11/16 x 5 3/4 inches (4.3 x 14.6 cm)
Bequest of Colonel Stephen McCormick, 2003
2003-133-37
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Making Roof Tiles

Ceramic roof tiles have been made for thousands of years in Korea. To make a strong, beautiful tile, one must find an excellent source of clay. Soil with the perfect mixture of clay and sand can be found in rice paddies. Although the ideal time to make the tiles is the spring, tilemakers head to the rice fields after the autumn harvest to search for the best clay, which then gets stored in pits through the winter. As the weather becomes warmer, the artisans take the clay out of storage and start kneading it, repeatedly pressing with their hands or feet until all air bubbles, tiny stones, and other debris are removed. Kneading the clay is time-consuming and physically exhausting work.

When the clay is smooth and free from impurities, it is sliced into smaller pieces with a wire cutter and pressed into wooden molds to form the desired shapes. The tiles are dried in the sun, and then fired in an evenly heated kiln. The advanced firing techniques of early Korean tilemakers create the unique color of the tiles. Today in Korea, most roof tiles are mass-produced in factories using modern techniques. However, traditional Korean tiles made by hand in the ancient way continue to be more durable, are impervious to weather, and do not easily crack.

This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: Korea, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont.

 

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