Preserving Intangible Aspects of Cultural Materials: Bonpo Ritual Crafts of Amdo, Eastern Tibet

Abstract

Ancient and historic products of past technologies exist in the form of material culture and archaeological finds, available for materials analysis. Technical studies and analytical work, coupled with the study of historical texts and archival documents, can help in reconstructing past technologies. But the act of making an object is, by its very nature, also an intangible part of human heritage. Production of material culture may be accompanied by specific rituals, social behaviors and relationships, music, knowledge gained from oral histories, meanings, intents, beliefs, and reasoning processes. For ancient objects, gaining access to these intangible aspects of cultural heritage may be extremely difficult, if not impossible. However, there are many societies where traditional crafts are produced within a context where the intangible aspects can still be recorded. Yet, these opportunities are disappearing at an alarming rate as development and globalization rapidly overtake more and more traditional communities. Documenting intangible data about craft processes can promote fuller understanding of the objects themselves, and aid long-term preservation of both the objects and the processes used to make them. Examples here are drawn from fieldwork conducted in 2007 at a Bonpo monastery (Serling) and nearby villages in the Amdo region of the eastern Tibetan culture area (in Sichuan Province, China). Bonpo practices, which pre-date the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet, incorporate a variety of ritual crafts that are strongly rooted in a complex web of intangible relationships, behaviors, meanings, purposes, and beliefs. This paper focuses on votive clay objects (tsha-tshas) and barley-dough offering sculptures (tormas). Processes encompassing intangible aspects that are explored include the decision to make an object, when to make it and in what form, selection of raw materials, methods for processing the raw materials, fabrication procedures, selection of who will be involved in fabrication steps, where to place the finished object, and whether it will be preserved for the long term or considered to be only a temporary object. Results are placed in the context of larger theoretical issues regarding documentation and preservation of intangible elements of cultural heritage as part of a study of materials and technological processes.

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Reedy, C.L. Preserving Intangible Aspects of Cultural Materials: Bonpo Ritual Crafts of Amdo, Eastern Tibet. MRS Online Proceedings Library 1047, 203 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1557/PROC-1047-Y02-03

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