New Archaeological Discoveries in Sichuan

Mask, Gold, c.1300-1100 BC, Sanxingdui Pit 3
Plaque of animal face, bronze, 1300-1100 BC, Sanxingdui Pit 2
Mask, Bronze, c.1300-100 BC, Sanxingdui Pit 3
Mythical creature, Bronze, c.1300-1100- BC, Sanxingdui Pit 8
Human head with gold mask, bronze, gold, c.1300-1100 BC, Sanxingdui Pit 2
Mask with protuding pupils, bronze, c.1300-1100 BC, Sanxingdui Pit 2
Human head, bronze, c.1300-1100 BC, Sanxingdui Pit 8
A kneeling figure with a twisted head, bronze, c.1300-1100 BC, Sanxingdui Pit 4
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Sanxingdui artefacts discovered in Sichuan province

In 1927, a farmer and his son discovered jade and stoneware on their property in Sichuan province. Like many fantastic stories of finding buried treasure, they accidentally found ancient relics while digging a ditch beside their residence. 

This serendipitous encounter of the first artefacts started a century of archaeological work that has brought the enigmatic objects from the pits of their burial to the Hong Kong Palace Museum in an extraordinary exhibition of bronze, jade, gold, and ceramics from Sanxingdui in China’s Sichuan province.

Gazing at Sanxingdui: New Archaeological Discoveries in Sichuan

In his lecture, Gazing at Sanxingdui: Arts & Urbanism of a Bronze Age Civilization, at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, the head curator of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, Dr Tianlong Jiao, noted that this collection of artefacts, some of the latest and newest obtained from the most recent archaeological excavations, was remarkable in that many are on display for the first time, and the complete stock on display in Hong Kong may never be shown as it is now, again in its entirety. 

Dr Tianlong Jiao

Dr Jiao’s speciality is early Chinese art and archaeology. His lecture focused on four fascinating facets of the Sanxingdui culture: its art, urban life, spiritual world, origin, and development.  

He notes that although the Sanxingdui site has been the focus of exciting archaeological works for almost a century, much remains to be known about the people who created these objects. Questions remain, mainly: Who were these people? Where did they come from? Where did they go?

Sanxingdui Extraterrestrial Origins Refuted

Human remains have yet to be found, and no written record of the culture and society that made and abandoned these artefacts has been found to provide clues. This has given rise to whimsical theories… some that even propose extraterrestrial origins. 

Dr Jiao said that after giving a tour with a thorough explanation of the exhibition objects and why and how they were made, one guest still suspected, “They must be aliens!”

“They were not aliens”, Dr Jiao insists, as much remains to be discovered, and more will be revealed. 

Three Star Mound

The conundrum and conjecture surrounding Sanxingdui began in the 1980s as major excavations and archaeological works commenced near the Three Star Mound site, where large amounts of ancient pottery had been exposed a decade before.

In 1986, two more pits were found with thousands of gold, bronze, jade, and pottery artefacts in an artistic style not previously known, which both astonished and excited the world. 

Amongst the amazing items, the bronze objects were the most splendid and fascinating as they alluded to technological and creative innovations different from those produced by societies contemporaneous with the timeline of this one. 

Bronze Giant Standing Figure

A bronze sculpture of a giant standing figure dating about 1300-1100 BC found in Pit 2 of the Sanxingdui site shows a casting method that was technically advanced. The statue weighs about 180 kg and is life-sized and hollow. It is the tallest and largest bronze human figure produced in its time in the world. The statue portrays a being with some divine power. Its oversized eyes, ears, and hands, which would have grasped some item of importance, indicate this may have represented a figure of considerable significance. 

Bronze Mask with Protruding Pupils

Remarkable pieces, such as the bronze mask with protruding pupils and a human head, dated the same as the giant standing figure from the same pit, show uniquely stylised facial features, particularly the eyes. The term Sanxingdui eyes reference this distinctive quality of the many bronze masks and figurines with exaggerated and protruding eyes. The large number of eye and pupil-shaped objects suggests reverence for the eye and the worship of eye-shaped objects, such as the sun or moon, or that it symbolises the divine power of the eye to see and communicate beyond this world. 

Amongst the amazing items, the bronze objects unearthed were the most splendid and fascinating as they alluded to technological and creative innovations

Sanxingdui Eyes 

These bronze masks, particularly the ones with protruding pupils, elongated slanted and extended eyes, are undoubtedly strange in appearance. This created speculation that the culture that produced them was an extraterrestrial non-human civilisation. 

Dr Jiao refutes this and notes that these stylised details are primarily on masks. Square perforations, which would allow these masks to be fastened or fitted onto something such as a wooden stand, show that these were used for display in ancestral temples or ritual venues.  

Bronze Kneeling Figure with a Twisted Head

He points to the recently excavated bronze piece from Pit 4, a kneeling figure with a twisted head, dating from about 1300-1100 BC, as representative of the people of Sanxingdui. The facial features appear human, and the statue is richly adorned with clothing and accessories. It shows the decoration of the garments, hairstyle and probably tattoos on the body. 

This item, excavated in 2021, is part of the trove of exciting new archaeological discoveries from Pits 3-8. From 2019 to the spring of 2020, six new pits were found close to the original two. With greater resources, technology, and skills, a significant effort was made to enclose the site to provide sustained and precise retrieval of the relics. 

Sanxingdui Gold Mask 

The exhibition includes recent discoveries from Pit 3, including a spectacular gold mask and a colossal bronze mask. A total of ten gold masks have been found; the one on display, dugout in 2021, is the largest. The colossal bronze mask weighs an astonishing 65.5 kg. 

With thick eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, and large ear lobes, these newly discovered masks conform to the stylised facial features characteristic of Sanxingdui art.

Sanxingdui Bronze Mythical Creature

A bronze mythical creature also emerged from Pit 8. Its large mouth, bold features and stocky stance provide a dramatic and intimidating pose. This enigmatic sculpture may have been part of a larger object. It is a divine beast which fascinates and requires further research and analysis. 

Sanxingdui Archaeological Site

As the pits release their treasures, what remains to be revealed is why this society buried enormous quantities of bronze, jade, gold, and ceramic objects at Sanxingdui. Dr Jiao remarks that what is known is that these were buried ritualistically and methodically. Vast quantities of artefacts were placed layer by layer, covered in ash, topped off with hundreds of elephant tusks and then sealed with rammed earth. Although these sites were purposely prepared, mysteriously, they were abandoned. 

The excavation, research and analysis of the Sanxingdui archaeological site will continue for decades. As new items are found and offered for display, the world will have the opportunity to know and see more. 

Text Cammy Yiu / Photo Cammy Yiu, Dave Chung & Martin Wray