More often such inscriptions are on the floor of the vessel. Because of these inscriptions, we have a long list of ancient vessel names, and we often know that a given vessel was considered to be of a certain type —such as a dǐng— because it says so.

But sometimes it is hard to square such identifications with other examples with the same name, which may or may not look the same.

The ability to manipulate metal ores to produce useful tools is one of the major steps in the development of human civilization.

dating chinese bronze incense burners-53

and to this day Chinese use some of these designs on family and temple altars (or in curio cabinets or on dining room tables) around the world.

(The pottery dǐng at left is from the Warring States Period —period 4e, about 300 BC— actually later than the bronze one at the right, which dates from a thousand years earlier.) Since bronze vessels were never intended as everyday table ware, artistic concerns were primary, and some of them were exaggerated beyond usability.

Other experts have classified them by general function, for example as "food vessels," "wine vessels," and a catch-all of "other things." "Wine," in the case of ancient China, is a highfalutin term for beer.

It was not made from fermented fruit, but from fermented grain, usually millet. On this page it is called beer, although it was not a kind of beer that would appeal to modern taste.

In fact, closely similar ceramic forms continued (and still continue) to be produced, both in utilitarian and in deliberately antiquarian variants.

Indeed, although bronze forms had their origins in pottery, from the time bronze vessels began to be used, they were imitated in ceramic.

Some terms may have been highly specialized (much the way modern clothing is), but some terms also seem to have been rather generic: simply plates, jugs, bowls, &c.

Experts have usually classified the vessels by their shapes, allowing their decisions to be overruled whenever a particular vessel contained a name that identified it differently.

In other words, not all similarly named vessels look quite right.