Many ancient remains defy our understanding, but one of the richest and strangest has stunned archeologists for almost 100 years. Sanxingdui, located in China and the source of nearly 13,000 artifacts which have been recovered to date, poses almost as many questions now as the day it was found.
One thing is for certain however: this site is a wonder, dubbed by some the “Ninth Wonder of he Ancient World”. How were treasures like jade boxes, golden masks, and towering statues abandoned here without explanation?
Will we ever learn the truth behind the curtains of mystery shrouding the Sanxingdui ruins? These are the questions to which historians and archeologists are still seeking the answer.
Sanxingdui is an archeological site in modern Guanghan, in the Sichuan province of southwestern China, that was first discovered in the late 1920s. The Sanxingdui culture is believed to have existed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries BC.
Archaeologists believe that the Sanxingdui culture was part of the ancient kingdom of Shu. The Sanxingdui were part of the Chinese Bronze Age and, based on the archeological findings in the area, this was a very sophisticated culture. Yet it mysteriously disappeared around 1100 BC leaving only artifacts behind.
The majority of what is known about the Sanxingdui civilization comes from two sacrificial pits believed to have been created during the civilization’s existence. In these pits, archeologists discovered a staggering 1,238 “bronze wares,” ivory artifacts, 543 gold artifacts, and 565 jade artifacts.
Giant bronze masks with protruding eyes, large, almost winglike ears, and thin lips were found at the site, and these are unlike any other masks found in the region. These unusual masks could be depictions of Cancong, the founder of the Shu kingdom, who was described in the Chronicles of Huayang (from the Jin Dynasty in 266-420) as having protruding eyes.
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Almost as mysterious is how these masks were used. There was evidence of what appeared to be the burning and breaking of artifacts before they were sacrificed in the pit. This has only added to the mystery of Sanxingdui, was the purpose of burning and destroying some artifacts part of a religious ritual?
The artistic style of the Sanxingdui bronze artifacts illustrates that the culture had incredible technical abilities in metallurgy. Nothing similar to this level of skill existed anywhere else in the world at the time.
The bronzes are not just beautifully decorated and finely crafted; the size of some pieces is massive. Some of the enormous items besides masks include an almost 3ft (1m) tall altar depicting a scene described as “sacrificial.” This imagery has been associated with the ancient Shu people’s depictions/descriptions of a realm of immortal people. Another massive bronze sculpture found was an 8ft (2.4m) tall tree, with uniquely shaped leaves.
One of the many compelling bronzes found at Sanxingdui was a 5ft (1.5m) tall sculpture made of three individually cast pieces, then welded together. The lower third of the sculpture is an urn-shaped ancient wine vessel (lei) resting upon a square-shaped base.
The middle section of the sculpture depicts an inverted human head with bulging eyes and large tusks with a serpent body. The upper piece is another ancient wine vessel, a zun, with a trumpet-shaped form with vermillion pigments. The inclusion of the lei and zun has only led to more questions.
The zun was a rare item in the Shu kingdom but was popular in China’s Central Plains/ Zhongyuan region. The lei has been associated with the pre-Western Zhou Dynasty near the Yellow River. These discoveries, from such disparate and separate parts of China, challenge the belief that the Chinese civilization originated and spread from the central plains of the Yellow River.
It all started in 1929, when a peasant from the Sichuan province discovered some jade and stone artifacts while making repairs on a sewage ditch. While the find was interesting, it would be a further 60 years until the wider world took notice: it wasn’t until 1986 that archeologists and historians realized how significant the discovery was.
When excavating the area, the first two pits were discovered. The two pits contained 1,000 artifacts with hundreds of broken and burnt objects that had been buried. The site is still being excavated by archeologists, geologists, and historians from Sichuan University, Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archeology Research Institute, Peking University, and other universities and museums.
Finds continue to emerge to this day. Between 2020 and 2022, six additional pits were discovered at the Sanxingdui site. In these pits, the archeologist found bronze wares decorated with zoomorphic figures, ivory carvings, fragments of silk, and pieces of a gold mask.
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At the current moment, teams are still finding more artifacts, and this most recent round of excavations is expected to end in October. There is still more to discover, and there are likely to be more excavations in the next several years.
What Happened To Sanxingdui?
The mystery behind this site is that the civilization and culture “willfully dismantled itself” sometime between 3,000 and 2,800 years ago. However, no human remains or written records have been found associated with the Sanxingdui.
One hypothesis could explain what happened to the Sanxingdui and why they left: the site could have been devastated by an earthquake. The earthquake may have led to landslides that blocked the flow of the river down from the mountains, which would have reduced or cut off Sanxingdui’s source of water.
This would have forced the Sanxingdui to relocate. There is some evidence for this hypothesis: a record from 1099 BC speaks of an earthquake around 250 miles (400km) away from the site, in the capital city of the Zhou Dynasty. There is a possibility that the Sanxingdui also felt this quake.
Aside from this, there is evidence from the geological record that supports the idea that an earthquake did occur in the vicinity around 3,000 years ago. Whether this upended the Sanxingdui or not cannot be said, but the events certainly align.
There is another site about 30 miles (48km) away from Sanxingdui in an area known as Jinsha, where artifacts discovered have some passing similarities to the ones at Sanxingdui. Archeologists also believe that the earthquake could have forced the Sanxingdui to relocate to Jinsha, where they rebuilt their society.
Of all the suggested causes of the disappearance of the Sanxingdui (yes, aliens have been considered, and no, it isn’t aliens) that have been explored, the earthquake and moving to Jinsha are the most logical. While the relocation idea sounds plausible, it still doesn’t explain or indicate why people would discard, burn, and then bury their things in what is now a total of eight pits, and it poses another question. If they relocated to Jinsha, why were artifacts not identical to the ones found in Sanxingdui?
Perhaps more evidence will come to light as further excavations are completed. Until then these mysterious early bronzeworkers are keeping their secrets.
Top Image: The metals masks of the Sanxingdui are unlike anything else in China or the rest of the world. Source: momo / CC BY 2.0.
By Lauren Dillon
Ghose, T. 2014. Mystery of Ancient Chinese Civilization’s Disappearance Explained. Live Science. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/49247-chinese-civilization-disappearance-explained.html
Weiss, D. 2015. Seismic Shift. Archaeological Institute of America. Archeology. Available at: https://www.archaeology.org/issues/169-1503/trenches/2986-trenches-china-sanxingdui-civilization
Yuqiao, J. 2022. Archaeologists find more cultural relics at Sanxingdui Ruins, presenting splendid ancient Shu culture. Global Times. Available at: https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202206/1268014.shtml
Xinhua. 2022. New findings at China’s Sanxingdui Ruins stun archaeologists. The State Council of The People’s Republic of China. Available at: https://english.www.gov.cn/news/photos/202206/14/content_WS62a7f0fdc6d02e533532c207.html