A summer’s day began like any other day for a group of Chinese brickworkers in the village of Sanxingdui, in Sichuan province. They set out as usual, breaking ground to dig clay for bricks, but before long their spades came across something foreign in the earth: a large pit containing a veritable wealth of archaeological treasures.
The pit, a 10-foot by 13-foot rectangle, held hundreds of artifacts made of bronze, gold, stone, jade and pottery dating from about 1200 B.C. Some were of elephant tusks and wood ash. A second pit was discovered not far from the first and the three mounds for which the village is named — sanxingdui means “three star mounds” — were revealed to be the remnants of ancient city walls long ago buried.
The objects in the pits were breathtakingly unusual: enormous semi-human bronze sculptures with extraterrestrial features; towering, intricate bronze trees once adorned with a multitude of ornaments; the remnants of elephant tusks from some unknown ritual; jade forked daggers and discs and many others. Many of the objects were broken and burned prior to burial.
A selection of the booty found in Sanxingdui, along with other artifacts from the area, are being shown in an exhibit, “Treasures From a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art From Sichuan,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until June 16. In total, 128 objects are on display, 60 from the two pits at Sanxingdui.
The start of the exhibit is decked out with some of its most spectacular sights. An enormous bronze mask, 55 inches wide, grins widely, mum to exactly what its function was in ancient times. Its eyes, shaped like pencil erasers, bulge out a foot from its sockets, and enormous ears protrude like wings. Another mask of similar proportions bears an extravagant appendage rising up from its nose like a periscope.
One of the show’s most impressive objects is an eight-foot tall bronze sculpture of a man with elongated face, creased eyes and alien, angular features. His expression is cryptically neutral. The stately figure wears a crown-like headdress and three layers of robes of fancy design. His oversized hands form enormous rings that seem suited to hold forth an object, perhaps the tusk of elephant, as an offering.
These unprecedented bronze sculptures are titillating not only for their visual impact, but because they represent a complex and previously unsuspected culture that continues to baffle scholars. Most bronze pieces from the Yellow River Valley were vessels for drinking and ritual; human figures, much less super-human ones, were rarely rendered. In contrast, there were but a few drinking vessels in the Sanxingdui cache; most vessels appeared to be objects, such as jade and cowry shells, for ritualistic purposes.
“No one expected that such a highly developed culture existed in Sichuan at such an early date, when the region was believed to have been a cultural backwater. The conventional view held that the Middle Yellow River Valley (in central China) was the birthplace of the Chinese civilization; it was there that the political states, the Shang (circa 1600 to 1046 B.C.) and the succeeding Zhou (1046 to 221 B.C.) dynasties, flourished. But with the discovery at Sanxingdui, Sichuan has now emerged as a rival cultural center, with a complex society, sophisticated art and rich material culture,” says Jason Sun, associate curator in the Met’s department of Asian art.
Little is known about the function of the objects, nor about the rituals they might represent. No written records were kept before the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.). There are some clues, however. Forty bronze heads bearing similar alien-like features were found in the pits, a few of which still wear masks of gold foil. Because of the presence of wood ash, it is theorized that they once sat atop wooden bodies, perhaps dressed in sumptuous clothing. Because small traces of bone ash were detected in one of the pits, these figures perhaps represented a ritualistic sacrifice in lieu of human sacrifice.
A tiny bronze figure barely two inches tall has importance disproportionate to its size. The figure kneels, stretching out its hands, and holds a large forked blade that is a miniature of the many such objects found in the Sanxingdui pits. It is the only evidence found of how the jade and stone forked blades were manipulated, and sheds some light on rituals of offering.
Bronze trees, central to the sacrifice rituals at Sanxingdui and perhaps symbolizing prosperity, are fantastic as well as fantastical. One tree, after painstaking reconstruction, stands six and half feet tall. Its base is elaborately decorated with horses and oxen in relief and it is topped with a winged feline crouching on a mountaintop. Birds, elephants, assorted creatures and “odd coins emitting wavy antennae” line the four levels of branches in an intricate filigree effect. Bronze trees in fragments were found only in the second pit. None were found in the first pit, although many more than a hundred collared bronze and a few jade disks were found. It is believed that these were ornaments for the trees, and perhaps the absence of bronze ones was because real trees were burned and buried in the first pit.
The show goes on to give a broader view of Sichuan by displaying objects found in the area that represent a span of centuries. From 4 B.C. are a set of 14 bronze niuzhong bells, arranged by size. They are the largest continuous set of the U-shaped chimes that were used in ancestral rituals. The bells are richly decorated with relief showing curls and hooks of zoomorphic forms that contrast with an inlay of gold lines at the center of each bell, now faded with time.
Objects from the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) compose the final section of the exhibit, including tomb sculptures that represent provisions that the deceased could use in the afterlife for comfort and prosperity. Objects depicting farmers, guards, animals and entertainers are popular, such as that of a ceramic drummer whose tongue sticks out with exertion. The figure delightfully twists to a silent music causing his trousers to slide down, mischievously exposing his backside.
Horses were common in tombs, such as a large bronze horse from the first or second century B.C. that has been weathered to a bluish hue. It is remarkable for its large size and exaggerated features of flared nostrils and grinning lips that show bared teeth. Made of nine separate bronze pieces, the horse stands 54 inches and is attended by a groom who leads the animal with an outstretched arm. Because of its stature, it is believed that this horse represents a breed imported from Central Asia (local breeds were much shorter), thus pointing to a connection with the West and the world outside of China.
Other objects, such as ceramic bricks depicting scenes of everyday life such as harvest, winemaking and even salt production, give a more complete picture of Sichuanese habits. But it is the selection from Sanxingdui that steals the show, in part because of how much remains incomplete. Many questions were raised with the find: Why were the objects broken, burned and buried? How did a city with such a rich cultural tradition come into being and what happened to it? Was it abandoned or destroyed? Despite the unanswered questions, the discoveries of Sanxingdui shed some light on an ancient China that is far more complex than previously imagined. Or as Robert Bagley, editor of the show’s catalog succinctly writes, “much less tidy, and much more interesting.”