The inscription may be read, 'shan fu ding', which may be translated 'shan (mountain, a clan sign) Father Ding'.
The tripod he form is seen as early as the Erlitou culture (19th-16th century BC) in pottery and was being made in bronze by the Erligang culture (16th-14th century BC). For a pottery example excavated from the second stratum at Erlitou see, R. W. Bagley, Chinese Ritural Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, 1987, p. 67, fig. 9. Bagley also illustrates three Erligang versions of this shape in bronze, p. 71, fig. 23 (Brundage Collection, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco) and pp. 76-7, figs. 41 and 43. All of these share the same mammiform legs, strap handle and an integral domed top with an opening at one end, above the handle, and opposite a spout rising diagonally from the front. The simplicity of form and decoration of these three vessels contrasts sharply with the extravagant decoration cast in high relief on two Shang dynasty bronze fang he from Anyang Xibeigang and now in the Nezu Bijutsukan, Tokyo, illustrated by Bagley, ibid., p. 104, fig. 129. Like the earlier versions the vessels are still raised on three somewhat mammiform supports and they have an integral top with an opening opposite the diagonally upright spout.
The present he represents a slightly later stage in the evolution of the he form. The integral domed top has been replaced by a separate domed cover attached to the handle by a link, and the spout now rises diagonally from the shoulder of the vessel, rather than from the top. The decoration is also far more subdued than the Nezu fang he. Like them, large taotie masks are cast on the three lobed sections of the body, but the decoration is flat-cast and in intaglio, as opposed to being in high relief, allowing the decoration to enhance rather than detract from the form of the vessel.
Only one other he similar to the present vessel appears to have been published. See Shang Ritual Bronzes in the National Palace Museum Collection, Taipei, 1998, pp. 164-7, no. 11. It is known as the Fu ding he, as the two-character inscription cast inside the cover and on the body beneath the handle reads Fu ding ('Father ding'). Another he of this form with related decoration, cast in low relief rather than flat-cast. is illustrated by d'Argencé, Ancient Chinese Bronzes in the Avery Brundage Collection, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1977, pp. 22-3, pl. VI.
Technical examination report available upon request.