Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Golden Masks from Sanxingdui

New research may solve mystery of enigmatic Sanxingdui civilization of China

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Amid the once-tranquil village of Sanxingdui, in a quiet part of Sichuan province in China, a remarkable discovery took place which immediately attracted international attention and has since rewritten the history of Chinese civilization. Two giant pits were unearthed containing thousands of gold, bronze, jade, ivory and pottery artifacts that were so unusual and unlike anything ever found in China before, that archaeologists realised they had just opened the door to an ancient culture dating back between 3,000 and 5,000 years.  However, the prime of Sanxingdui Culture came to an abrupt end in around 1,000 BC, and until now, the reason for its demise was a mystery.    

New research presented at the 47th annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco on December 18, suggests that the disappearance of the Sanxingdui culture may be due to an earthquake that occurred around 3,000 years ago. LiveScience reports that the quake caused catastrophic landslides, which blocked the civilization’s main water supply, and diverted it elsewhere. Researchers have theorized that the Sanxingdui people may have moved closer to the new river flow.

The discovery of the Sanxingdui culture

In the spring of 1929, a farmer was digging a well when he discovered a large stash of jade relics. This was the first clue that eventually led to the discovery of a mysterious ancient kingdom. Generations of Chinese archaeologists searched the area without success until 1986, when workers accidentally found the pits containing thousands of artifacts that had been broken, burned, and then carefully buried.

The discovery of the artifacts opened up a world of intrigue. The objects found in the sacrificial pits included animal-faced sculptures and masks with dragon ears, open mouths and grinning teeth; human-like heads with gold foil masks; decorative animals including dragons, snakes, and birds; a giant wand, a sacrificial altar, a 4-metre tall bronze tree; axes, tablets, rings, knives, and hundreds of other unique items. Among the collection was also the world’s largest and best preserved bronze upright human figure, measuring 2.62 metres (8 feet).

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals at the base to support a few bronze figures closely resembling the large face masks

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals at the base to support a few bronze figures closely resembling the large face masks, each holding in outstretched hands a ceremonial offering of some sort. (Wikipedia)

However, by far the most striking findings were dozens of large bronze masks and heads represented with angular human features, exaggerated almond-shaped eyes, straight noses, square faces, and huge ears. The artifacts were radiocarbon dated to the 12th-11th centuries BC. They had been created using remarkably advanced bronze casting technology, which was acquired by adding lead to a combination of copper and tin, creating a stronger substance that could create substantially larger and heavier objects, such as the life-size human statue and the 4-metre tall tree.

Sanxingdui bronze heads with gold foil masks

Sanxingdui bronze heads with gold foil masks (Wikipedia)

The advanced civilization of the Sanxingdui

The ancient artifacts found in the two pits date to the time of the Shang dynasty, in the late second millennium BC, when the primary civilised society was flourishing in the Yellow River valley, in north China, thousands of miles from Sichuan. No similar find has been made anywhere else, and there are no inscriptions at the Sanxingdui site to shed light on its culture, which was apparently a distinctive Bronze Age civilization, unrecorded in historical texts and previously unknown. The discovery contributed to a fundamental shift from the traditional understanding of a single centre of civilization in north China to the recognition of the existence of multiple regional traditions, of which Sichuan was clearly one of the most distinct.

A metropolis of its time, covering about three square kilometres, Sanxingdui had highly developed agriculture, including winemaking ability, ceramic technology and sacrificial tools and mining was commonplace. According to archaeological findings, the settlement at Sanxingdui was abandoned suddenly around 1,000 BC. For reasons that are still unknown, the prime of Sanxingdui Culture came to an abrupt end.

The demise of the Sanxingdui

The new research conducted by scientists from Tsinghua University in China investigated what could have caused their sudden disappearance. The most popular explanations until now have been either war or flood, but neither view is supported by substantial evidence.

Study co-author Niannian Fan, a river sciences researcher at Tsinghua University, said that archaeologists now believe the culture intentionally dismantled itself about 3,000 and 2,800 years ago and moved to an area called Jinsha near Chengdu.  This is suggested by the discovery of a gold crown at Jinsha with a similar engraved motif of fish, arrows, and birds, as that found on a gold staff found at Sanxingdui.

Researchers turned to historical records to find out why the Sanxingdui up and left their city. They found that in 1099 BC, there was a large earthquake in the capital of the Zhou dynasty, in Shaanxi province.

“Around the same time, geological sediments suggest massive flooding occurred, and the later-Han dynasty document ‘ The Chronicles of the Kings of Shu’ records ancient floods pouring from a mountain in a spot that suggests the flow being rerouted,” writes LiveScience.

Map of Sanxingdui

Map of Sanxingdui (Wikipedia)

Fan and his colleagues propose that the earthquake triggered a landslide that dammed the river high up in the mountains, rerouting its flow, and reducing the water supply to Sanxingdui.

The research team admit that their theory is still speculative and more research is needed to confirm it. But even if this does account for why the Sanxingdui had to move, it does not explain why they buried their most precious artifacts in two pits and why no significant traces of their cultures are found elsewhere. There is still much to be learned about the mysterious civilization of Sanxingdui.

Featured Image: Golden Masks from Sanxingdui (Wikipedia)

By April Holloway



rbflooringinstall's picture

Maybe one pit is The Light and the other pit is Darkness...?

Peace and Love,


Like other civilizations such as the Maya, they had gateways to the stars. They buried their treasures in the ground and left when their civilization could not continue on this planet. This is the most appropriate ting to do. we are all children of the stars.

aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

Joanna... Read More

Next article