Sanxingdui Museum
Address: 40km (25 miles) north of Chengdu
Price: ¥50 ($6.25)

Sanxingdui (literally "Three star mound") is an ancient Chinese city where archaeologists discovered remarkable artifacts that radiocarbon dated circa 12th-11th centuries BCE, and Sanxingdui is the name given to this previously unknown Bronze Age culture. The museum is located near the city of Guanghan, China.

Location

The Sanxingdui archaeological site is located about 40 kilometers northeast of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, 10 kilometers east of the city of Guanghan, but 50km from the city of treasures

Discovery

In 1929, a farmer unearthed a large stash of jade relics while digging a well, many of which found their way through the years into the hands of private collectors. Generations of Chinese archaeologists searched the area without success until 1986, when workers accidentally found sacrificial pits containing thousands of gold, bronze, jade, and pottery artifacts that had been broken (perhaps ritually disfigured), burned, and carefully buried. 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 artefacts of the Yellow River civilization(s).

Ancient Bronze Casting

This ancient culture had remarkably advanced bronze casting technology which was acquired by adding lead to the usual combination of copper and tin creating a stronger substance that could create substantially larger and heavier objects; for instance, the world's oldest life-size standing human statue (260 cm. high, 180 kilograms), and a bronze tree with birds, flowers, and ornaments (396 cm.), which some have identified as renderings of the fusang tree of Chinese mythology. The most striking finds were large bronze masks and bronze heads (some with gold foil masks) represented with angular human features and exaggerated oblique eyes, some with protruding eye pupils and large upper ears. Based upon the design of these heads, archeologists believe they were mounted on wooden supports or totems, perhaps dressed in clothing. Other bronze artefacts include birds with eagle-like bills, tigers, a large snake, zoomorphic masks, bells, and what appears to be a bronze spoked wheel but is more likely to be decoration from an ancient shield. Apart from bronze, Sanxingdui finds included jade artifacts consistent with earlier Chinese neolithic cultures, such as cong and zhang.

Cosmology

As far back as Neolithic times, the Chinese identified each of the four quadrants of the sky with animals: a bird with the South, the tiger with the West, the dragon with the East, and a tortoise/snake with the North. Each of these compass points was associated with a constellation that was visible in the relevant season: the dragon in the spring, the bird in the summer, etc. Interestingly, these are the four animals that predominate the finds of Sanxingdui--birds, dragons, snakes and tigers, leading to a theory that these bronzes representing the universe. It is unclear whether they formed part of ritual events designed to communicate with the spirits of the universe (or ancestral spirits). As no written records remain it is difficult to determine the intended uses of objects found. Some believe that the continued prevalence of depictions of these animals, especially in the later Han period, was an attempt by humans to "fit into" their understanding of their world. (The jades that were found at Sanxingdui also seem to correlate with the six known types of ritual jades of ancient China, again each associated with a compass point (N, S, E, W) plus the heavens and earth.)

All the Sanxingdui discoveries aroused scholarly interest, but the bronzes were what excited the world. Task Rosen of the British Museum considered them to be more outstanding than the Terracotta Army in Xi'an. The first exhibits of Sanxingdui bronzes were held in Beijing (1987, 1990) and the Olympic Museum in Lausanne (1993). Sanxingdui exhibits traveled worldwide, and tickets were sold out everywhere; from the Hybary Arts Museum in Munich (1995), the Swiss National Museum in Zurich (1996), the British Museum in London (1996), the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen (1997), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (1998), several museums in Japan (1998), the National Palace Museum in Taipei (1999), to the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore (2007). In 1997, the Sanxingdui Museum opened near the original site.

Possible Influence

The Sanxingdui Culture was a mysterious civilization in southern China, which was in the kingdom of Shu during the period of the Shang Dynasty. Although they developed a different method of bronze-making from the Shang, their culture was never recorded by Chinese historians. Sanxingdui culture is thought to be divided into several phases. The first one may have been independent, while the later phases merged with Ba, Chu, and other cultures.

Besides Sanxingdui, other archeological discoveries in Sichuan, including the Baodun and Jinsha cultures, all indicate that civilizations in southern China go back at least 5,000 years. Such evidence of independent cultures in different regions of China defies the traditional theory that the Yellow River was the sole "cradle of Chinese civilization."

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