The lost world of Sanxingdui

5 mins read

Fabulous finds from a forgotten civilisation

Sanxingdui has produced a wealth of startling Bronze Age artefacts. Many of these treasures were deliberately smashed or burnt before being buried, raising questions about what they were used for and how they met their end, as Tianlong Jiao and Shengyu Wang told Matthew Symonds.

This huge bronze mask measures 71cm high by 131cm wide, and dates back to c.1300-1100 BC. It was excavated in pit 3 at Sanxingdui in 2021, and is the largest bronze mask ever found at the site. The face, eyes, and ears were cast separately and then soldered together. The openings in the centre of the forehead and on both sides of the face were intended to attach the mask to something. Residues of silk have been observed near the right eye – clues for further research into the use and function of the mask. [Image: © Sichuan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology]

Sanxingdui disappeared for a long time. The site could once be counted among the greatest Bronze Age metropolises in Southeast Asia, but it was not to last. Sometime around 1000 BC, the settlement was abandoned and its significance was eventually forgotten. A hint of its former grandeur remained enshrined in its name, though, with the characters for ‘Sanxingdui’ meaning ‘Three Star Mounds’, a reference to earthworks visible at the site. Further clues emerged in 1927, when jades were found during ditch-digging operations, but it was only in the 1980s that the true scale of the Bronze Age accomplishments became apparent. First, it was realised that the mounds were the remains of a gigantic city wall, reaching a width of around 40m at the base. But the real shock followed in 1986, when workers digging clay for a brickyard chanced upon two rectangular pits. Their contents were nothing short of sensational: sumptuous bronzes, gold objects, jades, elephant tusks, and cowrie shells. One bronze statue featuring a figure with a slender waist, elegant robes, and giant, grasping hands stood 2.6m high in total. There could no longer be any mistaking the ancient wealth, power, and ingenuity of Sanxingdui.

This hybrid tiger-dragon figure stands 75.5cm tall, and was found in pit 8 in 2021. It has protruding eyes and teeth, a band-like piece in its mouth, and painted black stripes on its body. At the front end of each branch of the base stood a small bird with touches of vermillion pigment, but only one remains today. A rectangular bronze ‘patch’ connected with bronze wire below its body suggests an opening possibly existed there originally. [Image: © Sanxingdui Museum]

As a group, the objects from the pits astonished by virtue of their quality and quantity. But most striking of all was their content. The bronze masks, heads, statues, and even trees discovered in the pits were unparalleled in China, and indeed anywhere else. It seemed that this sublime artistry was expressing a unique view of the world that developed in and around Sanxingdui, which lay in the Sichuan basin of the Yangtze River: a remote region ringed by high mountains. Given the wonders unearthed in the 1986 pits, expectations were understandably high when a further six pits were detected near the original two in 2019. Sure enough, excavations from 2020-2022 produced a wealth of new wonders from the Bronze Age city. Some of these finds shed fresh light on the 1986 objects, while others have added strange and beguiling creations to the Sanxingdui corpus, such as a curious creature that is part tiger, part dragon. As well as providing plenty to ponder about the meaning of such mystical beings, the recent archaeological investigations have also unearthed less glamorous, but just as fascinating, details about how these objects were committed to the earth. As such, the Gazing at Sanxingdui: New Archaeological Discoveries in Sichuan exhibition at the Hong Kong Palace Museum offers an opportunity to learn the latest from the site (see Further Information box). As well as displaying 55 finds from the latest dig, it also anchors the discoveries from Sanxingdui within the wider archaeology of the Sichuan region.

Gallery 1 of the Hong Kong Palace Museum special exhibition includes a replica of the great bronze statue of a human-style figure (far left) found in a pit in 1986. [Image: © Hong Kong Palace Museum]

Visions in bronze

‘It took us more than two years to plan this special exhibition,’ says Dr Tianlong Jiao, Head Curator of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, who is also a co-curator of the exhibition. ‘It began with the new discoveries in 2019. By 2021, the excavations had reached the objects within the pits, but that was during the COVID period, so we were not able to visit the site. Fortunately, media groups did live broadcasts of the excavation, so I saw some of the fantastic objects coming out of the pit. Because of that, I began a conversation with the people in Sichuan, and that’s how everything started.’

A key reason why the contents of the pits are simultaneously a source of wonder and bafflement comes from something that has not been found in the pits, or anywhere else at Sanxingdui: writing. This existed further north at around the time the bronzes were being buried, as scripts are known from sites belonging to the Shang state, such as Anyang on the Yellow River. ‘It is possible that the archaeologists will find writing in the future at Sanxingdui,’ says Jiao. ‘We hope that they will. It would definitely help, so long as we could decipher the text. That might take some work. After all, if you look at the contemporary scripts from the Shang sites, we still can’t recognise a lot of the characters. Even so, archaeologists can rely on other means to try to understand the lives and rituals of the Sanxingdui people. There has been an effort over the past decade to secure precise dates for the site and understand the pottery sequence. Work on the craft materials has also shown how trade networks connected Sanxingdui to other parts of modern China and beyond. When it comes to ritual and religion, though, trying to reconstruct this without writing is always a puzzle for any archaeologists. And even when you have texts, lots can still be uncertain. But given the nature of the pits, it is certain that some kind of ritual was involved. And we can also be confident that the sculptures in the pits were made by people who lived in or around Sanxingdui.’

This mythical creature stands 98cm tall and was found in pit 8 in 2022. Virtual modelling suggests that it used to support on its back a kneeling figure that was found in pit 3. The creature is viewed as one of the most bizarre discoveries from the site and was probably once a key ritual object in a temple. [Image: © Sanxingdui Museum]

Knowledge of the Bronze Age city has come a long way since the mid 1980s. Although modern villages lying on top of the ancient settlement limit the areas available for investigation, excavations have successfully exposed its basic structure. ‘The urban centre covered an area of 3.6km²,’ says exhibition co-curator Dr Shengyu Wang. ‘The Mamu River flowed through this, while a second river ran along the northern edge of the city. Elsewhere, along the western, eastern, and southern sides of the city, the course of the city walls has now been established. We know that a palatial quarter was established just to the north of the Mamu River, while a sacrificial area where all eight pits were located lay to the south of the river. There was an area of workshops to the north of the Mamu River, while scattered residential areas for the non-elite inhabitants have also been found.’

The Gazing at Sanxingdui: New Archaeological Discoveries in Sichuan exhibition will run at the Hong Kong Palace Museum, Hong Kong, until 8 January 2024. For more details, see: www.hkpm.org.hk/en/exhibition/gazing-at-sanxingduinew-archaeological-discoveries-in-sichuan

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 122. Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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