Sanxingdui: Discoveries From a 3,000-Year-Old Civilization
Chinese archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of artifacts at an archeological site in the southwestern Sichuan province, providing glimpses of an ancient civilization dating back more than 3,000 years.
Over 500 relics found in Sanxingdui, including gold and bronze mask fragments as well as ivory and jade items, were unveiled over the weekend, according to the National Cultural Heritage Administration. This is the largest finding at the ancient site in more than 30 years, since the first major excavation began in 1986.
Zhao Congcang, a professor of archeology at Northwest University in Shaanxi province, told Sixth Tone that although the site was discovered almost a century ago, it wasn’t until a major excavation in 1986 that the historical findings drew wide public attention. At that time, more than 1,000 relics were unearthed from two pits — including a standing bronze figure, a bronze mask, and a 3.95-meter-tall bronze “tree of life” now on display at the Sanxingdui Museum.
“It will be of great academic significance for research to determine the age of the Sanxingdui Civilization, its cultural context and characteristics, and its origin and flow,” he said, referring to the recent discoveries.
In 1987, Chinese academics had proposed the name “Sanxingdui Civilization” to describe the discoveries, surmising that the ruins date from the late Xia dynasty to the Shang and Zhou dynasties.
In light of the recent discoveries, Sixth Tone takes a closer look at the Sanxingdui Ruins.
What are the Sanxingdui Ruins, and why are they important?
Located in the city of Guanghan, some 40 kilometers north of Chengdu, the Sanxingdui Ruins are home to several artifacts from the Shu Kingdom, an ancient state in what is now Sichuan province. It is known to be the largest centralized site ever found in the region, dating back to the Xia (2070 B.C.-1600 B.C.) and Shang (1600 B.C.-1046 B.C.) dynasties.
The archaeologists say they have also discovered evidence of a walled city at the site that they believe was founded contemporaneously during the Shang dynasty.
“(The discoveries) can provide valuable empirical evidence for an in-depth study of the exchange between ancient Chinese and extraterritorial cultures, as well as their role and position in the global history of human cultural development,” Zhao said, adding that the Sanxingdui Civilization has a “significant connection” with the origin of Chinese civilization.
The discovery of Sanxingdui dates from 1929, when a farmer unearthed a cache of jade relics in Guanghan. The world didn’t realize the scale of the Sanxingdui Ruins until 1986, when archeologists discovered thousands of gold, jade, bronze, and pottery artifacts in the first sacrificial pit. However, due to limited excavation technology in the late ’80s, many of the artifacts weren’t properly preserved.
Since the opening of the Sanxingdui Museum in 1997, the site has attracted millions of visitors. Bronze heads with gold foil masks and the bronze tree of life are among the museum’s prized items. Last year, several domestic museums including Sanxingdui Museum offered livestreamed tours after people were advised to avoid unnecessary travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In July, archeologists also discovered what is believed to be a 5,000-year-old settlement near Sanxingdui. One of the findings, a pottery pig, became a talking point on social media due to its uncanny resemblance to a character from the hit mobile game Angry Birds.
What are the recent discoveries?
The artifacts unveiled Saturday are from excavation work that started in November 2019. Local archeologists have discovered six new sacrificial pits at the site in addition to the two found in 1986.
Findings included fragments of a gold mask — about 23 centimeters wide and 28 centimeters tall — which have become the pièce de résistance of the current excavation. According to the leader of the excavation team, the whole mask is expected to weigh over 500 grams and could be “the heaviest golden object from that time period.”
Zhao, the professor, described the mask as a “rare, dazzling treasure.” He added that another discovery, a carving on a mung bean-sized piece of ivory, could perhaps be one of the earliest instances of Chinese “micro-carving art.”
More than 100 ivory items were unearthed in the recent excavation. A large number of ivory pieces had also been discovered in the previous excavation, though many couldn’t be well preserved, according to domestic media.
Another finding was the site’s never-before-seen silk. Such discoveries are believed to help researchers understand Sichuan’s importance as a key source of goods along the Silk Road after the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.), state-run Global Times reported, citing an unnamed expert.
Sun Hua, a professor at Peking University’s School of Archaeology and Museology, told domestic media that the eight pits were filled in around same time, and the discovered relics could be sacrificial artifacts from the same temple.
“If this conjecture is true, then this archaeological discovery could provide new support for restoring the entire temple’s ritual space, religious system, social structure, philosophy, and cosmology from that time,” he said.
What’s new in this excavation?
According to Ran Honglin, who is in charge of the current excavation project, the work has been a joint collaboration between experts from Peking University, Shanghai University, and Sichuan University, and the archaeologists have adopted modern technology to complete the project.
This time, the team used “archeological cabins” erected over the pits to control the excavation site’s temperature and humidity levels. They have also helped minimize the amount microorganisms and bacteria that workers introduce to the site, which can damage the artifacts.
This excavation is also one of the few that has been livestreamed to the public, with millions watching it from their electronic devices in real time.
How has the public received the recent discoveries?
The significant national and international media coverage is likely to aid Sanxingdui’s local tourism in the future. Du Yu, a guide at the Chengdu Museum, said he noticed an influx of tourists visiting the museum’s Sanxingdui bronze statue over the weekend.
“Many museums around Chengdu are going to benefit from all the public attention from the new Sanxingdui discovery,” Du told Sixth Tone. “This demonstrates public interest in the culture and civilization of the ancient Shu Kingdom.”
Since Saturday’s announcement, more than 5,000 people have visited the Sanxingdui Museum daily, twice the average weekend footfall. Many online have also said they would be willing to visit the museum and see the newly unearthed artifacts.
Meanwhile, the excavation has taken a twist on Chinese social media, with many users slamming state broadcaster China Central Television for inviting author Nanpai Sanshu, who writes about tomb raiders, to give his take on the recent discoveries. Experts and social media users have strongly suggested that linking archeology to tomb raiding — a serious crime in China — is unnecessary and misleading.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Archaeologists unearth more than 500 cultural relics dating back some 3,000 years at the Sanxingdui Ruins in Guanghan, Sichuan province, March 20, 2021. People Visual)