Censer, chased silver, Tang dynasty (618-960). Height: 4.3 cm, Diameter: 7.5 cm.. Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund, the Vallentin Bequest, Sir Percival David and the Universities China Committee. M.98-1938. © V&A Images

Silver objects were not as highly coveted in China as in other ancient civilizations such as the Roman or the Parthian, but they became important luxury items for emperors and high-ranking officials during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). By the beginning of the 7th century large quantities of silver pieces with exotic shapes and styles were imported along the Silk Road from Iran and Central Asia to China. During the same period Chinese craftsmen also acquired new manufacturing techniques from Central Asian silversmiths who had settled in Chinese urban centres beginning in the mid 7th century.

This censer consists of two hemispherical shells which are locked together by a bayonet fitting to form a sphere. A series of rings inside one another were attached to one half to ensure that the central saucer remained upright even when the incense burner was rolled around. This device was invented by the Chinese in about the 2nd century and probably derived from the armillary spheres used by astronomers.