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3,000-year-old Sanxingdui artifacts

Unique 3,000-year-old Sanxingdui artifacts to be revealed in all their glory

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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 civilisation. Two giant sacrificial 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. Now, beginning today, the stunning artifacts will go on display at Southern California's Bowers Museum, the first stop on a rare U.S. tour. 

The accidential discovery of the artifacts by a farmer in 1929 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

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)

By far the most striking findings were dozens of large bronze masks and heads represented with angular features, exaggerated almond-shaped eyes, straight noses, square faces, and huge ears. The facial features do not reflect those of Asian people.

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.

Some of the masks were enormous in size – one measures an incredible 1.32 metres in width and 0.72 metres in height, the largest bronze mask ever found. The three largest masks have the most supernatural features of all the Sanxingdui artifacts, with animal-like ears, monstrously protruding pupils, or an additional ornate trunk.

A bronze mask of Sanxingdui

A bronze mask of Sanxingdui. (Asian Civilisations Museum

Researchers were astonished to find an artistic style that was completely unknown in the history of Chinese art, whose baseline had been the history and artifacts of the Yellow River civilization(s).

The spectacular discovery at Sanxingdui in 1986 turned Sichuan into a focal point in the study of ancient China.  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 civilisation, unrecorded in historical texts and previously unknown. The discovery contributed to a fundamental shift from the traditional understanding of a single centre of civilisation in north China to the recognition of the existence of multiple regional traditions, of which Sichuan was clearly one of the most distinct.

A bird or dragon-like bronze head

A bird or dragon-like bronze head. (Wikimedia)

The culture that produced these artifacts is now known as the Sanxingdui Culture, and archaeologists are identifying it with the ancient kingdom of Shu, linking the artifacts found at the site to its early legendary kings. References to a Shu kingdom that can be reliably dated to such an early period in Chinese historical records are scant (it is mentioned in Shiji and Shujing as an ally of the Zhou who defeated the Shang), but accounts of the legendary kings of Shu may be found in local annals.

The sacrificial pits are believed to have been sites for the ancient Shu people to offer sacrifice to Heaven, Earth, mountains, rivers, and other natural gods. The human-like figures, bronze animal-faced masks with protruding eyes and flat bronze animal-faced masks may be natural gods worshiped by the Shu people.

The discovery of Sanxingdui shocked the world, but the history of the artifacts remains a mystery. Only the contents of two solitary pits reflect the immemorial and brilliant civilisation of the Shu – no other artifacts like them have ever been found since. There are no historical records, and no ancient texts that speak of them, leaving experts asking what the purpose of the objects was, where the culture came from, and where they went after burying their most precious treasures. The Sanxingdui civilisation is a unique page in China’s long history and for now it remains an enigma.

China's Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui includes more than 100 ancient pieces, some never seen outside China. The exhibit will remain at the Bowers until March 15, after which they will move to Houston's Museum of Natural Science.

Featured image: Two Sanxingdui masks (Wikimedia)


Rare Ancient Chinese Bronzes Go on Display in US – Associated Press

Historical Wonders of Sanxingdui –

The Sanxingdui Ruins - CriEnglish.Com

Sanxingdui Ruins Prove Diversity of Chinese Civilization – People’s Daily

Mystery Men: Finds from China's Lost Age – Asian Civilizations

Museum New Digging to Probe Mystery of Ancient Sanxingdui Ruins – People’s Daily

By April Holloway



As presented, there are currently still insufficient evidences that can lead to any conclusive study. Need to give such research more time. However, I would like to give a try at making my own possible induction. A possible theory could be a Double Wipe-out, involving Genocides and/or Acts of God.

What do I mean? The facial features of the Sanxingdui masks bear striking resemblances to the appearances of people of Caucasian origins, probably from any of the lands stretching all the way from Europe, Mideast, Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent, encompassing the ancient civilizations of Babylon and India. The protruding eyes might be an exaggerated depiction of bulging eyes, which along with the huge noses and squared faces, are facial features common to the Caucasians. That is likely an indication of some sort of interactions with people of a non-Caucasian origin, ie. the mainstream Chinese from other parts of China. The artifacts, showing exaggerated facial features, are evident of the "Culture Shock" experienced by the mainstream Chinese. Such a characteristic of exaggeration has also been prominent in some Tang Chinese artifacts, produced at a time in ancient Chinese history when cross-cultural interactions with the Near East, Indian subcontinent and Central Asia had been prevalent. Their Modern-day equivalents may be the use of slits in Western depictions of the eyes of the Mongoloids.

The intricacy and exquisiteness of the artifacts, which are fine works of art, might indicate that the Sanxingdui people were initially held in high regards by very possibly an adjacent mainstream Chinese tribe who was the only group of mainstream Chinese to have direct contacts with the Shu people. However, due to conflict of interests that could have resulted from claims of ownership to overlapping territories, relations turned sour and took a dive for the worst, leading to a possible Genocidal battle against the Sanxingdui people. Upon the success of the campaign, all written records of the Shu people were intentionally destroyed to wipe out any hint on their claims of legitimate entitlement to the territories. Either that, or they didn't keep any written record at all. It has to be remembered that the Sanxingdui people were most likely only a relatively small group of migrants into Sichuan, China. Artifacts about them were broken, burnt and buried by their Chinese conquerors, a symbolic ritual that spells their ultimate demise. While this Chinese tribe probably had recordings to mark their victory against the people of the Shu Kingdom, such traces of records were also destroyed in another Genocidal campaign or Act of God against them, in an ironic twist of fate.

Of course, the above may well just be my imagination, in the wildest form!

New Findings continue to keep us Searching. An answer opens the door to a room full of questions....The quests for truths are truly endless...

angieblackmon's picture

does anyone else look at this pieces and just wonder how the heck they made them? how the idea came about? the materials? the time and effort? because I do. I'm crafty but I'm not artist, but I do get big ideas sometimes and converting them from an idea to something is never easy...but at least i can run to the craft store and get what i need. where did they find this stuff? how did they know to mix the materials? 

love, light and blessings


For sure, that's Snoop Doggy Dog on the right..!!

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.

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