The Sanxingdui were contemporaries of the Shang that lived in a fertile area watered by Yangtze tributaries near Chengdu in what is now southwestern Sichuan Province. Thus far two main Sanxingdui sites have been found: one near the Sichuan village of Sanxingdui, after which the culture is named, and another about 80 kilometers away in Jinsha. Sanxingdui is about 70 miles away from the Shang heartland.
Daniel Weiss wrote in Archaeology magazine:“Sanxingdui was a Bronze Age civilization that flourished in China’s fertile Sichuan Basin for several hundred years before mysteriously disappearing around 1100 or 1200 B.C. “Much of what is known about Sanxingdui civilization comes from two pits dating to around the time of its disappearance. The pits contained hundreds of jade, bronze, and ivory objects that had been ritually broken or burned and then buried, and their discovery in 1986 shook up the world of Chinese archaeology. Although some jade and stone artifacts had been found in the area in 1929, experts had thought that sophisticated Chinese civilization at the time was centered along the Yellow River in the distant Central Plains region. But the pits, which yielded expertly worked bronze items, including several giant masks with strangely distorted features, made clear that the Sanxingdui civilization was quite advanced as well. [Source:Daniel Weiss, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2015]
“The Sanxingdui ruins were discovered by accident by a farmer in 1929, and is now thought to be one of the most important archaeological sites in the country. The importance of the site was revealed in 1986, when stunning bronzes — radically different from anything found at the Shang sites and dated to around 1200 B.C. — were unearthed near Sanxingdui. It is unlikely the Sanxingdui and the Shang had much contact because of large mountains that divided them. There is no mention of Sichuan area in the oracle bones but excavations in Sanxingdui have revealed large numbers of cowrie shells like this found in the Shang areas. Jinsha is a suburb of Chengdu. The site was discovered by construction workers. Among the relic that were unearthed were gold headgear, a gold mask, jewelry and elephant tusks. To date, more than 50,000 relics have been unearthed at the site, which is around 60km (37 miles) from the city of Chengdu
The remains of other cultures have been found which have led archaeologists and historians to theorize that perhaps the Shang were not as dominant in their area as once thought and were one of many cultures that existed at that time. Princeton University historian Robert Bagley told National Geographic, “What is certain at the moment is only that early Bronze Age China was a more complicated place than we used to suppose.”
The Sanxingdui sites have yielded elephant tusks, gold objects, bronze masks, jade pieces, gold pieces, a 13-foot-high bronze tree that looks an upside down candelabra, heads and figures with slender heads, slanted eyes, grim expressions and protruding eyeballs. A totem to a god or king features a bronze head covered by a gilded mask that looks like a space alien. The most famous Sanxingduipiece is an 8½-foot-tall human figure that also has an otherworldly alien look.
Sanxingdui artifacts have included gold mask, bronze pieces, gold foils and objects made from ivory, jade and silk. In 2021, pieces from six "sacrificial pits" were revealed, which the National Cultural Heritage Administration, said the Shu civilisation used to offer sacrifices in prayers for prosperity. At one site hundreds of jade, bronze gold and stone artifacts, collectively weighing more than a ton, were found burned or broken and then buried in two pits. The first pit was mostly filled with pig, sheep, cattle and buffalo bones. Most of the objects of value were found in the second pit, which was topped by 67 elephant tusks. Scholars have speculated that the objects were either offerings or valuables destroyed to keep them out of the hands of an approaching enemy. The pits were part of tomb of Emperor Wen, the Tuskman of Sanxingdui. It was built in 1200 B.C., more than a thousand years before the terra cotta army of Emperor Qin.
The Sanxingdui culture had no writing. They buried their dead with valuable objects but didn’t appear to have practiced human sacrifice. Their custom of burying the dead with bronze heads and figures suggested they may have been human substitutes.
Sanxingdui Archaeological Site
Sanxingdui Archaeological Site (40 kilometers north-northeast of Chengdu four kilometers northeast of Nanxing Town, Guanghan County) is an important archaeological site with of displays Baodun Culture from the ancient Shu and Jinsha Cultures, among the earliest cultures recorded in the history of China. This historical site dates to 3,000 to 5,000 years ago and is scattered over an area of 12 square kilometers.
The Sanxingdui were contemporaries of the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C). that lived in a fertile area watered by Yangtze tributaries in what is now southwestern Sichuan Province. Thus far two main Sanxingdui sites have been found: one near the Sichuan village of Sanxingdui, after which the culture is named, and another about 80 kilometers away in Jinsha. Sanxingdui is about 1,000 kilometers away from the Shang heartland. This site, believed to be an ancient Shu city, was initially discovered by a local farmer in 1929 who found jade and stone artefacts. Excavations by archaeologists in 1986 yielded when two major sacrificial pits with spectacular bronze items as well as artefacts in jade, gold, earthenware, and stone.
The 1986 discoveries included stunning bronzes- -radically different from anything found at the Shang sites and dated to around 1200 B.C. It is unlikely the Sanxingdui and the Shang had much contact because of large mountains that divided them. There is no mention of Sichuan area in the Shang oracle bones but excavations in Sanxingdui have revealed large numbers of cowrie shells like this found in the Shang areas. Jinsha is a suburb of Chengdu. The site was discovered by construction workers. Among the relic that were unearthed were gold headgear, a gold mask, jewelry and elephant tusks.
The Sanxingdui culture had no writing. They buried their dead with valuable objects but didn't appear to have practiced human sacrifice like the Shang. Their custom of burying the dead with bronze heads and figures suggested they may have been human substitutes.
Sanxingdui Museum (northeastern part of Sanxingdui Site, 40 kilometers to the north of Chengdu and 26 kilometers to the south of Deyang) has an interesting collection of ancient sculptures and masks from Sanxingdu culture. The Museum is a in modern building with an exhibition space of 12,000 square meters. It consists of two pavilions. The first is a comprehensive pavilion with various kinds of gold, bronze, jade, stone and pottery artifacts. The second, the bronze pavilion, specializes in bronze objects.
Sanxingdui has many precious bronze and gold artifacts, including the world's oldest life-size standing human statue (260 centimeters tall), the world's oldest gold cane (142 centimeters in length) and a bronze tree with birds, flowers, and ornaments The Sanxingdui sites have yielded elephant tusks, gold objects, bronze masks, jade pieces, gold pieces, a 13-foot-high bronze tree that looks an upside down candelabra, heads and figures with slender heads, slanted eyes, grim expressions and protruding eyeballs. A totem to a god or king features a bronze head covered by a gilded mask that looks like a space alien. The most famous Sanxingdui piece is an 8½-foot-tall human figure that also has an otherworldly alien look.
At one site hundreds of jade, bronze gold and stone artifacts, collectively weighing more than a ton, were found burned or broken and then buried in two pits. The first pit was mostly filled with pig, sheep, cattle and buffalo bones. Most of the objects of value were found in the second pit, which was topped by 67 elephant tusks. Scholars have speculated that the objects were either offerings or valuables destroyed to keep them out of the hands of an approaching enemy. The pits were part of tomb of Emperor Wen, the Tuskman of Sanxingdui. It was built in 1200 B.C., more than a thousand years before the terra cotta army of Emperor Qin.
Admission: 80 yuan (gallery ticket); 5 yuan (Garden ticket). 1) Ticket sales ends at 5:00pm, so remember to buy the ticket before then; 2) Students, seniors, people with disabilities, and soldiers can get discounts. 3) Children less than 1.2 meters (including 1.2m) can visit the museum for free. 4) To obtain a guide one can pay 120 yuan at the reception desk in the comprehensive gallery. Getting There: 1. Take a bus at Xinnanmen Bus Station in Chengdu, it runs twice a day: 8:30 am and 3:00pm. (Tel: +86-28-85433609]2) Take a bus at Chengbei Bus Station, the bus leaves every 15 minutes. Hours Open: 8:30am-6:00pm (first pavilion or comprehensive pavilion) 8:30am-6:30pm (Second pavilion or bronze pavilion), and the second one is the bronze pavilion. Website: Official museum site sxd.cn/en , Tel: +86-838-5651550/5510349
Sanxingdui and Shu Mythology, History and Archaeology
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: According to legends and historical records, there was once an ancient state called “Shu” located in the enclosed Sichuan Basin in Southwest China. In 316 B.C., the ancient Shu State was conquered by the Qin State and the ancient Shu culture had been buried under the mainstream Central Plain (Zhongyuan) culture, only leaving a few reign titles mentioned in the later literatures and tales. Thus, the reconstruction of the ancient Shu history and culture is heavily relied on archaeological materials and references. Thanks to the important archaeological findings in the sites of ancient Shu, a unique and fascinating civilization, which was entirely different from the Bronze Civilization of the Yellow River Valley, was gradually revealed. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]
“The Archaeological Sites of the Ancient Shu State is the quintessence of ideology, culture and arts of ancient Shu State in the Bronze Age. The city layout reflects the unique urban planning concept, spatial sense and social structure of ancient Shu State. The religious buildings and unearthed cultural relics explain the view on the universe of ancient Shu people, how they pursue supernatural power and their plastic arts. All these are masterpieces of ideology and arts of the Bronze Age demonstrating the contributions and creation of ancient Shu people in philosophy and world view.
“The Archaeological Sites of the Ancient Shu State is a typical representative of the Bronze Civilization of the Yangtze River Valley during 1900 B.C.-400 B.C. The civilization is a unique and highly developed Bronze Civilization in a unique geographic area of Sichuan Basin as a result of integration and recreation of civilizations of the Yellow River Valley, lower and middle reaches of Yangtze River and other adjacent areas on the basis of indigenous culture of ancient Shu people. The unique characteristics had been long maintained till the conquest by Qin State and had certain influences on the civilizations of China and East Asia.
“The Shu State Before the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.) was an ancient state seen in historical literatures and tales. It created its unique history and tradition in the lengthy process of development which gradually faded away with subjugation of the Shu State by the Qin State. Sanxingdui Site and Jinsha Site and Joint Tombs of Boat-shaped Coffins introduce the resplendence of the Bronze Civilization of ancient Shu State and provide physical evidences for the history, tradition and civilization of the vanished ancient Shu State.
“The Archaeological Sites of the Ancient Shu State is an outstanding example of adaptation to and utilization of Chengdu Plain in the west part of Sichuan Basin by people of the ancient Shu State. Land development, flood control, water conservancy and city site selection show intelligence and talent of the ancient Shu people and represent the different development stages of ancient Shu Civilization. Due to use of traditional East Asian building materials such as earth and woods which are vulnerable to the impact of natural force and human activities, in the process of modernization and urbanization, the sites are increasingly endangered and joint efforts are required to resist the threat.”
Sanxingdui Archaeological Sites
Sanxingdui Sites in Guanghan City (2900 -500 B.C.) were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Archaeological Sites of the Ancient Shu State is an outstanding representative of the Bronze Age Civilization of China, East Asia and even the world. The nominated Archaeological Sites of the Ancient Shu State consists of Sanxingdui Site, Jinsha Site, and the Great Tomb in the Shangye (commerce) Street, and their natural environment in a total heritage area of 611.3 hectares. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]
Sanxingdui Site (N 30°59 38", E 104°11 58") is located in the west suburb of Guanghan city, in Sichuan Province. With the ancient city as the core, the site covers an area of 600 hectares. This is a large city site existed for a very long time. It had become the cultural center of Bronze Civilization in Sichuan Basin since around 1800 B.C. The city was enclosed by high earthen city walls in an area of 360 hectares with clear function zoning: taking the east-west direction river across the city as the central line, in the north large palaces were built on the earthen terrace, in the south was the religious area symbolized by sacred temples, while in the northwestern suburb were the tombs. Great changes took place in around 1200 B.C.: temples were buried down and vessels in the temples were damaged and buried, which could be proven by more than 6,000 pieces of valuable cultural relics unearthed from the two sacrificial pits.
Jinsha Site (N 30°41 01", E 104°00 41", west of Chengdu city) covers 11 hectares centering the religious and sacrificial area. The site emerged after Sanxingdui in 1200 B.C. and was abandoned in around 650 B.C. The layout of function zoning is similar to that of Sanxingdui ancient city: a west-east river cuts the site into the south and north parts. The palaces were located in the north part and the religious and sacrificial area were in the south. In the west of these two parts, there were populace’s residential areas and the tombs. The religious and sacrificial area was about 1 hectare where a tall wooden sacrificial building has been revealed and over 6000 valuable cultural relics have been unearthed from more than 60 remains of ritual objects. The excavated cultural relics are surprisingly similar to those from Sanxingdui Site in terms of category and style. A large amount of sacrificial objects are buried under the religious and sacrificial area and needs further protection.
Joint Tombs of Boat-shaped Coffins (N 30°40 00", E 104°03 19", in the central Chengdu city) covers about 0.3 hectares around the tomb. “This is a large tomb with 17 coffins of different sizes dated back to 400 B.C. The tomb pit is in rectangular shape measured 30.5 meters long, 20.3 meters wide and 2.5 meters deep. The bottom of the pit is paved by wood slabs bearing a large boat-shaped coffin of the occupant and smaller coffins in other shapes. All coffins are made of single trunks of trees. The largest boat-shaped coffin is 18.8 meters long and 1.5 meters wide and contains a large number of valuable cultural relics. Above the tomb there are magnificent architectures measured 38.5 meters long and 30 meters wide and consisting the front and rear parts. The rear chamber covers the tomb symbolizing the residence of the dead; the front chamber stuck out of the tomb representing the work place of the tomb owner and the ancestral temple for later generations. It is the earliest physical evidence for Chinese mausoleum system known as “temple in the front and residence in the rear”. Around the tomb, several similar large graves are found underground. According to study on unearthed objects, this is a tomb of the royal family of the ancient Shu State. After Shu was conquered by Qin State, the tomb, just like Sanxingdui Site and Jinsha Site, was long forgotten till they were discovered today.”
Sanxingdui and Jinsha
Around the same time as Sanxingdui, a similar civilization sprang up in Jinsha, about 50 kilometers from Sanxingdui. The Jinsha site, discovered within the modern-day provincial capital of Chengdu in 2001, was found to contain bronze items that share similar artistic features as those in Sanxingdui [Source: Daniel Weiss, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2015]
Daniel Weiss wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Experts generally accept that the Jinsha civilization is a continuation of the Sanxingdui culture, but have been puzzled by what prompted the move. War? Floods? Now, a Chinese scientist has argued that the actual cause was a massive earthquake that led to a landslide that diverted Sanxingdui’s primary water source so that it flowed past Jinsha instead.
Niannian Fan, a scientist specializing in rivers at Sichuan University in Chengdu, says his interest in the Sanxingdui-Jinsha puzzle was first piqued when he noticed that the ravines and beds holding a number of waterways leading to and passing the Sanxingdui site were much wider than their current rate of flow would suggest. It seems they had once held much larger rivers. After the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Fan hypothesized that another massive earthquake had struck the same area more than 3,000 years ago, causing a landslide high in the mountains that changed the course of the Minjiang River. “The earthquake would not have destroyed Sanxingdui directly,” says Fan. “But the water level in Sanxingdui would have decreased sharply just one or two days after the earthquake.”
“Fan has gathered preliminary evidence to back up his hypothesis. Using Google Earth, he found that a stretch of mountainous terrain through which the old river would have flowed on its way to Sanxingdui lacks signs of glacial erosion that should be present, suggesting that this section may have been covered up by a landslide. In addition, he notes, an ancient text records that an earthquake occurred in 1099 B.C. in the capital of the Zhou Dynasty in Shaanxi Province. This is around 300 miles from what he presumes to have been the quake’s epicenter, but its magnitude would have ensured it was felt there. (Neither the Sanxingdui nor the Jinsha civilization left any written records.)
“Agnes Hsu-Tang, an archaeologist and host of the “Mysteries of China” series on History Channel Asia, believes that Fan’s hypothesis “is the most rational explanation [for the move from Sanxingdui to Jinsha] I have heard up to this point.” Still, the earthquake and landslide hypothesis can’t explain why the broken and burnt objects were thrown into the pits at Sanxingdui around the time the site was abandoned. “These sacrificial pits might not have anything to do with the fleeing, but may have been a sacrificial ritual carried out regardless of the natural disaster,” says Hsu-Tang. “There is evidence suggesting that they did not do it in a hurry, that it was very deliberate, and that the objects were not meant to be recovered. And that’s what remains so mysterious.”
Gold Sanxingdui Mask Becomes an Internet Sensation
In 2021, a 3,000-year-old ceremonial gold mask from Sanxingdui drew a considerable amount and unexpected social media sensation in China after was discovered. The BBC reported: “The artefact was one of 500 Bronze-Age relics found at the Sanxingdui archaeological site. Experts say the discovery could provide new insights on the ancient Shu state, which ruled the area before 316 BC. [Source: BBC, March 23, 2021]
“But the mysterious half-faced mask has also spawned a popular meme and tribute videos on social media. As soon as the latest batch of discoveries was announced, users of microblogging platform Weibo started making pictures superimposing the mask on the faces of pop culture figures. “The hashtag "Sanxingdui gold mask photo editing competition" has been viewed nearly 4 million times, and has spawned numerous posts as netizens praised the "stunning" and "beautiful" mask.
“Officials at the museum for Sanxingdui — one of the most important archaeological sites in China — soon joined in on the fun. “Good morning, we've just woken up, apparently everyone's been busy doing some Photoshopping?" the museum said in a recent Weibo post while sharing its own take on the meme. The museum also released a promotional animated music video starring the mask and other artefacts, while a rap song created by a TV host praising the "intelligence" of the ancient civilisation has gone viral.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Sanxiongdui art, Sanxiongdui musem and National Gallery of Art.
Text Sources: New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated August 2021