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Using a pickaxe and shovel, I loosen and pull weeds from around the base of the concrete water tank. The earth is a brownish yellow clay, clumpy, difficult. We’ve weeded old flower beds and resurrected pathways at our new dwelling, an old 1930s farmhouse in the Strzelecki Ranges, but this patch seems untended, growing paddock grass and weeds. The wheelbarrow grows weighty with clods of earth sticky, wet and heavy clinging to the roots of tussock grasses, thistles and kikuyu.  

Amongst the dirt I find fragments of ceramic cups and saucers, a silver fork, bent and rusty nails, and a metallic disc. Wiping one side clean on my trousers, reveals a deep brown metal, some patches of red and blue, a few pits. It lies flat and smooth in my palm like it had been held that way before. An umber moon. The other side is tightly caked with earth. An old lid? Part of a machine? Prop it on the fence post for later.  

Kim is clearing the shed of old newspapers, leaves, old bits of farm machinery, preparing to set up a foundry. I stand, stretching my back, envisaging a herb garden looping around the east side of the tank. Perhaps a statue? A sundial?  

'It’s bronze,' says Kim. He picks at the dirt on the underside uncovering some Chinese script.  


Copper and tin, the metals used to make bronze are found underground. Humans have been making bronze since the fifth millennium BC. Traditionally the alloy is made up of about ninety per cent copper and ten per cent tin. These days some silicon.  

Bronze resists corrosion; doesn’t rust. Bronze antiquities found under the ground and under the sea are often in good shape. In China, remains of ancient copper mines engineered with deep vertical shafts and horizontal passages date back to 1000 BC.  

I assist with a pour.  

The ceramic crucible and furnace radiate; the pot, which starts off an earthy brown becomes so hot it turns almost transparent with a red-orange-yellow-white glow. The bronze ingots are melting. Kim skims off the slag. When the metal is ready, sliding, like lava, we use the lifting  tongs to carefully raise the crucible out of the furnace and place it on the concrete floor inside the pouring ring. The hot moulds are already supported in the sand box.

Standing, holding the shafts of the pouring ring, we lift and pour the liquid into the cavities. We run outside, removing face shields and stripping off leather gloves and aprons to cool down. As they cool, a few of the moulds crack open, the inner sculpture hatching like a chicken from an egg. There’s a sundial. Made for our latitude.  


'Where’s the disc you found?' Kim asks. 'Maybe it’s a mirror?' He’s looking at an article about Chinese bronze mirrors in an old National Gallery of Victoria magazine. He shows me the images of circular mirrors decorated on the other side.  

It’s in the little garden shed, still dirty, amongst other objects found in the garden. A Champion tobacco tin. A metal dental plate. A local cordial company bottle. A stick insect and assortment of dry iridescent beetles. My heart beating fast, we carefully knock out the earth, scrub with a  toothbrush, excavate with a wooden clay tool. Reveal circling creatures and script in cast relief. A raised eyelet for looping a ribbon.  

Dr Mae Anna Pang, the author of the article, is the curator of Asian Art at the National Gallery. She invites me to sit while she examines the mirror. Turning to the bookshelves, she selects three huge dictionaries of Chinese scripts from various periods and places to translate the characters.  

The inscription around the outer edge begins, 'the First Full Moon of the Fourth Year of the Rains'. Another legible sign says, 'Cheng-an' meaning 'Continuing Peace' and another refers to the mirror being made in Shaanxi Province. The lions circling the inner ring represent the four directions.  Some of the signs are worn and Dr Pang can’t be definitive. She says one sign is probably the name of the company who made the mirror; another the name of the owner or the occasion on which it was presented.  

Consulting another volume, Dr. Pang translates the poetic Chinese date as 1199 A.D. The mirror is over 800 years old. I can’t believe how precisely this object can be dated. At the time of the mirror’s making, the Jin Dynasty and the Southern Song Dynasty ruled most of China.  

I hold the mirror in my palm. Wonder at my digging it up from the cretaceous mudstone soils of the Strzelecki Ranges, a thousand years after it was made and 9,000 kilometres away. How did it arrive here? Bronze mirrors were believed to possess magical properties. They were often passed down through families or given to a family member as a protective talisman when journeying afar. Did a descendant bring this mirror with them to Australia, to guide and keep them safe on the long journey to a strange land? Mirrors have been found amongst grave goods in Chinese burial sites. Believed to absorb sunshine they would light the way through the dark unknown of the underland. Had this mirror been buried with the deceased owner on their way to the Stockyard Creek or Turtons Creek goldfields in the 1870s?  

A path loops through the mints, oregano, angelica, lavender and rosemary. The thyme blooms pink and white. A sundial sits on an old terracotta pipe soaking in the sun — the gnomon’s shadow marking time.  


I never have polished the mirror’s face to a high sheen, rather liking the weathered matte surface of the years, the tinges of red and blue patination. 

Two hundred years before this mirror was made the Japanese author, Sei Shonagon wrote:  


Things that make your heart beat fast …  
                      Looking into a Chinese mirror that’s a little clouded.

End notes

Thanks to Dr Mae Anna Pang for translating the Chinese writing. 

The word 'underland' was coined by Robert MacFarlane in his 2019 book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey.  

The quotation by Sei Shonagon is from The Pillow Book. Translation by Meredith McKinney.  

The horticulture of regional Victorian soils are discussed at Agriculture Victoria.

Chinese copper extraction is discussed at Heritage 1971: Ancient Chinese Dynasties - Unveiling the Mystery.