The Treasures of Sanxingdui

The contents of those two pits amaze. They include some of the most remarkable bronzes from the ancient world: human face-masks with protruding eyes, thought to depict Cancong, the mythical first king of Shu.

In 1986, a sea change occurred in our understanding of the rise of civilisation in China. Until then, the Zhongyuan – that is, the Central Plains of the Yellow River – was seen as the region where the first states evolved. Sima Qian, the Grand Historian, wrote about this 2,000 years ago. The mythical Xia Dynasty that he described has been pinned down at the elite palace centre of Erlitou, and the visitor to Zhengzhou can walk along the walls of this former Shang Dynasty capital. To the north-east, you can take the train to Anyang, admire the rich treasure trove of bronzes, cowries, and jades in the tomb of Fu Hao, a redoubtable woman who led Shang troops in battle. In 1046 BC, King Ji Fa of the Zhou led his fearsome Tiger Warrior infantry to the Battle of Muye that sealed the fate of the last Shang Emperor. Up until recently, the archaeology of Sichuan, to the south of the Yellow River, and indeed the Yangtze Valley as a whole, has remained virtually silent. But this is changing fast. A remarkable early state has now been explored in the lower Yangtze Valley at Liangzhu, and at Panlongcheng, a city that grew wealthy probably by sending copper and tin north to the Shang, has been identified.

Then came the discovery of the ritual pits at Sanxingdui. Sichuan Province is sequestered away in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. It is true that the site was first recognised in 1927, when some fine jades were discovered. There were some early excavations in the 1930s, but the real turning-point came in 1986, when two pits were discovered in a massive walled city abutting the Jian River. Dating from about 1600 BC, this was a capital of the Shu state, and like its Shang contemporaries, the city was divided into different precincts, incorporating a palace, residences, and an industrial quarter, which is the location of pits that have all the hallmarks of ritual about them.

The contents of those two pits amaze. They include some of the most remarkable bronzes from the ancient world: human face-masks with protruding eyes, thought to depict Cancong, the mythical first king of Shu. Then there is a huge bronze shaman figure, and a tree with flowers and birds perched on its branches. Described as more stunning than the terracotta army, the shaman figure stands to a height of 2.60m, and weighs 180kg. The tree is nearly 4m in height. There is a sacrificial altar, supported on four animals, with priests above making offerings. Jade yazhang blades some half a metre long and decorated with human images were placed in these pits, along with stacks of ivory.

I have had good reason to curse the COVID-19 plague over the past 18 months. It has denied me several meetings I was keen to attend, although here in New Zealand we have been most fortunately spared much of the disruption seen by friends and colleagues overseas. However, an email from my friend Jiejun Mei that found its way into my inbox on the 22 June turned a knife in the wound. He invited me and some colleagues to participate in a Zoom meeting centred on the latest excavations at Sanxingdui. The frustration was that, on past experience, this would have involved meeting up at the site and visiting the excavations. Instead, I recorded my presentation and sent it off. For me, a matter of great interest is the trade between the Yangtze sites and South-east Asia that sent cowries and probably ivory north and brought a handful of jade yazhang blades and the knowledge of bronze-casting south. On a broader front, one of the eight topics at the meeting focused on Sanxingdui and the spread of metallurgical technology in Eurasia. Here there is a fascinating issue – the uptake of bronze technology in South-east Asia took place after the casting of the tree and the shaman, but could not have been more different, for it catered for the interests and needs of the local inhabitants. We find small socketed axes, fish hooks, bangles, chisels, and awls, but nothing remotely like the elite bronzes of Sanxingdui. Remarkably, the new radiocarbon dates from Sanxingdui place the pits in between 1200 and 1000 BC, exactly the time when the first bronzes were being cast in South-east Asia.

Stunning discoveries

RIGHT This gold mask is of identical form to the massive bronzes recovered from the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdui.
This gold mask is of identical form to the massive bronzes recovered from the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdui.

Late in 2019, the word spread that more sacrificial pits had been identified at Sanxingdui, and preparations were in train to excavate them. These were, and are, no ordinary excavations. Environmentally controlled cabins were constructed over the pits, and up to 15 different specialisations from 34 research institutes across China were deployed to identify and study in situ the precious finds as they were gradually unearthed. This involved experts in the recovery of silk fabrics and complete elephant tusks. Xu Danyang from Peking University found himself revealing fragile bamboo and charcoal in a layer of ash that covered the artefacts below. A pair of bronze bird’s feet was gradually revealed, and the microscope on hand was brought into action to find that they had been wrapped in fabric. Then there was the gold. What first appeared to be a crumpled fragment was painstakingly excavated. As it was revealed, it turned out to be the surviving half of a mask identical in form to those already recovered in bronze. It was not the only gold: a sceptre was also found, weighing in at half a kilogram.

One of the most exciting things about the new initiatives at Sanxingdui is that they are happening as I write. What will almost certainly be the largest bronze mask of all is being investigated in Pit 3. It is expected to be 1.35m wide and 75cm high. Amid a jumbled pile of elephant tusks in this same pit, one can see huge bronze drinking vessels that match those known from the Shang court. Pit 8 is the biggest yet, covering an area of 20m². Among the offerings is weaponry in stone and bronze, including dagger-axes.

BELOW Closing in on more spectacular bronzes among piles of ivory at Sanxingdui this year.
Closing in on more spectacular bronzes among piles of ivory at Sanxingdui this year.

My conviction is that Chinese colleagues have barely scratched the surface of this site, described in recent reports as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the last century. What, we might ask, was the purpose of immolating such huge quantities of valuables? Ritual is often cited as a reason when no other can be forwarded. No such treasure pits are known from the Shang or Zhou sites of the Central Plains. There is evidence that the items sacrificed in this manner were deliberately damaged by fire. One thing we cannot doubt is that those responsible disposed of a vast store of accumulated wealth. Sichuan does, in fact, occupy a nodal position on a number of major trade routes. When the first Neolithic rice farmers expanded up the Yangtze River to reach the fertile plains of Sichuan, they encountered other farmers moving south from the Central Plains, bringing with them their domestic millet. The quantities of copper needed to cast the colossal Sanxingdui bronzes could have been sourced in the mines of the Central Yangtze lakelands, where Tonglüshan is one of the biggest mining complexes known in East Asia. There were trade routes to the north that almost certainly brought the first knowledge of copper technology into the region, and from the south there was desirable marine shell, including highly sought after cowries.

In my recorded video that had to substitute for the presentation I so wanted to give in person, I emphasised the importance of the new excavations and the huge potential for further work. I would love to find out more of the palace quarter, and try to track down elite tombs if they have survived the ubiquitous ancient and modern looter. Then there are the homes of the urban populace and the evidence that can be gained from the workshops that produced the amazing bronzes. Moving forward in time, what happened to the Shu Kingdom? Once again, we have to defer to future research to fill in the missing centuries between the high point of Sanxingdui and the appearance of the Shu state as a contender in the period of Warring States. Shu had the misfortune then to be a near neighbour of the state of Qin to the north. In the late 4th century BC, the stone cattle-road was built over the Qinling mountains, easing the passage of trade and, unfortunately, armies between the two. Qin conquered Shu and relocated thousands to the Chengdu plain, turning what had once been such a remarkable civilisation into a province of the Qin Shihuangdi’s united China.

ALL IMAGES: Sanxingdui Museum.