Gold Mask of Mysterious Sanxingdui Culture Inspires Memes
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 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 realized they had just opened the door to an ancient culture dating back between 3,000 and 5,000 years.
Now, Global Times reports that over 500 more relics and six more sacrificial pits have been discovered at the site. The most exciting find? A gold mask which has inspired some surprising memes and videos. The past and present are colliding for some fun!
The gold mask was recently unearthed in a sacrificial pit at the Sanxingdui ruins. ( Wang Mingping/ China Daily )
The Amazing Discoveries at the Ancient Sanxingdui Site
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-meter-tall (13.12 ft.) 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 meters (8 feet).
Mysterious Masks that Changed Chinese History
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, features which don’t 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-meter-tall tree.
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Some of the masks were enormous in size – one measures an incredible 1.32 meters (4.33 ft.) in width and 0.72 meters (2.36 ft.) 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 crested bronze mask with protruding pupils is one of best known artifacts of the Sanxingdui site. (Wang Kaihao/ China Daily )
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 civilisation(s).
Relics of the Mysterious Sanxingdui Culture
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 pits date to the time of the Shang dynasty, in the late second millennium BC, when the primary civilized 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 center 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.
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.
A large bronze head with protruding eyes believed to depict those of Cancong, the semi-legendary first king of Shu. (Tyg728/ CC BY-SA 4.0 ) According to the Chronicles of Huayang compiled in the Jin Dynasty (265–420 AD), the Shu kingdom was founded by Cancong. Cancong was described as having protruding eyes, a feature that is found in the figures of Sanxingdui. Other rulers mentioned in Chronicles of Huayang include Boguan, Yufu, and Duyu. Many of the objects are fish and bird-shaped, and these have been suggested to be totems of Boguan and Yufu (the name Yufu actually means fish cormorant).
Signs of Ancient Sacrifice
A metropolis of its time, covering about three square kilometers, 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. The prime of Sanxingdui culture ended abruptly, for uncertain reasons, although some scholars propose that an earthquake was involved.
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. Ao Tianzhao from the Sanxingdui Museum, who has been studying the Sanxingdui culture for half a century, believes the large number of bronze artifacts at Sanxingdui indicates that this site used to be a mecca for pilgrims. He says:
“Judging from the numerous bronze human images and funerary objects, the ancient Sanxingdui kingdom had unified and ruled the people through primordial religion. They worshiped nature, totems and their ancestors. The ancient Shu kingdom probably often held grand sacrificial activities to attract tribes with different religious beliefs to come from far and near to worship.”
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Since the discovery, these artifacts have received a great amount of international interest and attention. They have been exhibited at world renowned museums such as The British Museum, Taipei’s National Palace Museum, National Gallery of Art (Washington), Guggenheim Museum (New York), Asian Art Museum (San Francisco), Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney) and Lausanne Olympic Museum (Switzerland).
A New, Impressive Gold Mask that Sparks Memes
The most impressive find in the new round of excavations is a fragment of a gold mask which is larger than previous gold examples. The mask is estimated to be 84% gold and it measures 23 cm (9.06 inches) wide, 28 cm (11.02 inches) high, and weighs about 280 grams (9.88 oz.), according to Jerusalem Post .
The gold mask recently unearthed in a sacrificial pit at the Sanxingdui ruins. ( CCTV)
Lei Yu, the head of the Sanxingdui site excavation team, believes that if the mask were complete it would weigh more than 500 grams. He thinks that if a whole mask like this one were found it would be both the largest and heaviest gold mask from that period found anywhere in the world.
The 3,000-year-old ceremonial gold mask has also sparked some surprising interest online. BBC News reports that the artifact has inspired a bunch of tribute videos and become a popular meme. Weibo users started the fad by making pictures that superimpose the mask on the faces of pop culture figures. Soon the officials at the museum for Sanxingdui joined in on the fun by adding their own take on the meme and releasing an animated music video which promotes the mask and other artifacts.
Japanese action figure Ultraman and Hello Kitty have now “worn” the mask. ( Weibo)
Sanxingdui Remains an Enigmatic Page in China’s History
The recent round of excavations, which took place from November 2019 to May 2020, also unearthed traces of decayed silk. This is the first time 3000-year-old silk has been found in the province and experts say, “Such findings will help us understand why Sichuan became an important source of goods for the Silk Road after the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25).” They also found more divine trees and bronze masks among the artifacts.
When asked why there was such a large gap between excavations, Lei said, “Once the two pits had been cleaned, the urgency for further excavation did not exist. Archaeology cannot be hasty. We have to wait for the need for a well-planned academic purpose to take the initiative for more excavations.”
A rare type of bronze vessel ‘zun,’ which has a round rim and a square body, is among the items newly unearthed from Sanxingdui site. ( China Daily )
The discovery of Sanxingdui shocked the world, but much of the history of the artifacts remains a mystery. Only the contents of the pits reflect the immemorial and brilliant civilization 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 to decipher the purpose of the objects, where the culture came from, and where they went after burying their most precious treasures. Although recent finds may cast some light on the story, the Sanxingdui civilization is a unique page in China’s long history and for now it remains mostly an enigma.
Top Image: Sanxingdui bronze heads wearing gold foil masks. Source: momo/ CC BY 2.0
Updated March 23, 2021.
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