Unique 3,000-year-old Sanxingdui artifacts to be revealed in all their glory
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 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. (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. (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 – China.org.cn
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