This is a rare find – at least within Britain – that was recently discovered by archaeologists from Pre-Construct Archaeology at Bermondsey Square in Bermondsey, London. It is a stoneware lion figurine, probably Chinese in origin, but was found in a domestic context. It is depicted in a sejant, or sitting, pose and is relatively well-preserved except for the missing lower end of the face, which might have once held a ball. It is decorated with applied snail-like spirals along its head and back to represent the lion’s mane.
While lions have been a common motif for ceramic figurines in China since the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), this particular example more likely dates from the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644-1911) and may have been made in the Fujian or Guangdong provinces. While its exact date is difficult to discern based on comparable finds, it was found with pottery dated to c.1730-1750, which may indicate a mid-18th-century date for the figurine as well.
It has preliminarily been identified as an incense-holder and, indeed, during testing of the figurine, archaeologists from PCA discovered that an incense stick fits nicely into the small hollow cylinder found at the back of the lion, between its fore and hind legs. Additionally, when a small briquette of incense is placed between the lion’s front legs – next to its body, which is hollow – the smoke is released out of its mouth, giving the impression that it is breathing fire.
Based on its relatively diminutive size (6cm tall), it is unlikely to have been originally designed as an incense burner in a temple or other religious building, as those were usually made to accommodate multiple sticks. This example is more likely to have been for personal use, perhaps made to be placed on a table or desk to keep away flies and mosquitoes while eating or writing. How the item was used by its owner in Bermondsey, however, remains a mystery. Perhaps it was utilised as intended – as an incense holder – or maybe it was kept merely as a fashionable import from abroad.