Sculpted bronze heads with gilded masks from the Sanxingdui Museum. The sacrificial pits at the Sanxingdui site, accidentally discovered by local brick factory workers in 1986, have yielded thousands of bronze and jade objects, with some of the most fabulous being the masks. PHOTO BY ART YANG, 2004.

The Sanxingdui site is one of the most important bronze-age sites in the Chengdu Plain of Sichuan Province. Archaeological discoveries at the site, for which the Sanxingdui culture is named, include remnants of city walls and two sacrificial pits. The pits have yielded thousands of bronze and jade objects, which have provided evidence for reconstructing bronze culture in the Chengdu Plain.

Sanxingdui, the most important archeological site and center of the Sanxingdui culture (c. 2800–c. 1000 BCE), is located 40 kilometers north of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. The site covers an area of about 12 square kilometers and includes more than thirty locations. It was known to the public as early as 1929, when a local farmer dug up more than four hundred objects made of jade and hard stone and sold them on the antique market.

The Museum of the China Western University (Museum of the Sichuan University today) conducted a brief excavation of the site in the 1930s. Archaeological surveys and small-scale excavations were carried out from the 1950s to the 1970s. Large-scale excavations from 1980 to 1994 revealed remnants of city walls covering an area of 2.6 square kilometers. The walls were constructed by the pounded-earth technique in the first half of the second millennium BCE, contemporary with or even earlier than the early Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE) city at Zhengzhou in the Central Plain. The walls at Sanxingdui meander in three directions except in the north, where the Yazi River runs through, and were protected by trenches. The trenches were connected to the Mamu and Yazi rivers, creating a solid defense for the city. In addition, archaeologists have found a pottery kiln and over fifty building foundations inside the city and a group of twenty-eight graves outside the city.

The most exciting discoveries at Sanxingdui are two large sacrificial pits 300 to 400 meters north of the southern city wall. The pits, accidentally discovered by local brick factory workers in 1986, have since yielded thousands of bronze and jade objects. These objects, with distinct and astonishing styles, have drawn great attention around the world to this mysterious ancient culture. They are the primary material evidence used in reconstructing the Sanxingdui bronze culture in the Chengdu Plain.

Pit 1 is 4.5 to 4.64 meters by 3.3 to 4.38 meters at the top and 4.01 by 2.8 meters at the bottom. It is dated to a period contemporary with late Yinxu Phases I and II of the Shang dynasty. Objects excavated from the pit include 420 artifacts made of bronze, gold, jade, and hard stone, pottery, and amber; fragments of 10 bone objects, 13 ivory tusks, and 62 seashells. About 3 cubic meters of burned bones were also found in the pit. Pit 2 is 5.3 by 2.2 to 2.3 meters at the top, 5 by 2 meters at the bottom, and 1.4 to 1.68 meters in depth. It is dated to the period from late Yinxu Phase II to Yinxu Phase IV. It yielded 1,300 objects laid in three layers, including 735 bronzes, 486 pieces of jade, 61 pieces of gold, 15 stone objects, 3 pieces of turquoise, 67 elephant tusks, 4 fragments of ivory objects, 120 ivory beads, 2 tiger teeth, and 4,600 seashells. Many of the objects were burned and destroyed before being dumped into the pits, suggesting the practice of rituals at the site.

Mask Mystery

The most fabulous findings from the pits are two large bronze standing figures; forty-four bronze heads, some of which are covered with gold foil; and twenty-three anthropomorphic masks and nine animal masks executed in sculptural form. These artistic representations have no parallel among the bronze productions at the Shang center at Anyang. One of the two standing figures from the pit was reconstructed. It is thought to represent a wu shaman, a shaman king, or a shaman leader. Interpretations of the bronze heads and anthropomorphic masks are even more diverse. They are identified as ancestors, wu shamans, gods, and other deities. All the bronze heads lack torsos, implying they may have been dressed or attached to other objects originally. The animal masks might represent the ancestors of the later Shu people. In addition to these impressive figurative representations, six large bronze trees, bronze architecture elements, and numerous small bronze pendants in various shapes such as birds and flowers further indicate a complex system of ritual ceremony with a spectacular display of social wealth.

The majority of the bronzes and jades from both pits exhibit distinct local styles. A small number of bronze vessels, including fourteen zun and six lei wine containers similar to the Shang style, have been found, suggesting that cultural interactions took place between the Sanxingdui and the Shang. Nevertheless, Sanxingdui culture clearly had its own cultural and ritual traditions that were distinct from those of the Shang.

The material remains from the two sacrificial pits suggest that the Sanxingdui culture must have possessed sophisticated jade-making and bronze-casting technology. A centralized, complex political organization must have existed to support the workshops and organize large-scale productions. Religion and ritual practices seem to have played a significant role in the society. At its peak the Sanxingdui culture had expanded beyond its homeland on the Chengdu Plain to surrounding areas such as southern Shaanxi Province, the upper Han River valley, and western Hubei, where objects of typical Sanxingdui styles have been discovered.

Beginning and End Debated

The predecessor of the Sanxingdui culture is still a matter of debate. Some scholars trace the culture’s roots to local Baodun culture during the Neolithic period (8000–5500 BCE), while others argue that it developed from the culture that migrated into the Chengdu Plain. The fate of the Sanxingdui culture is as puzzling as its origin. It is not clear whether the Sanxingdui culture suddenly collapsed, moved out of the area, or transformed into a society of different social and political organization. Discoveries of more than five thousand gold items, objects made of jade and hard stones and bronzes, and ivory tusks and pottery at the Jinsha site in the western suburb of Chengdu since 2001 could provide clues to this puzzle.

Further Reading

Bagley, R. W. (Ed.). (2001). Ancient Sichuan: Treasures from a lost civilization. Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum.

Sichuansheng wenwu kaogu yanjiusuo (1999). Sanxingdui jisikeng [Excavations of the sacrificial pits at Sanxingdui]. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe.

Sun Hua. (2000). Sichuan pendi de qingtong shidai [The Sichuan basin in the Bronze Age]. Beijing: Kexue chubanshe.

Ge Yan & Linduff, K. M. (1990). Sanxingdui: A new Bronze Age site in southwest China. Antiquity 64, 505–513.

Zhu Zhangyi, Zhang, Qing, & Wang Fang. (2002). Chengdu Jinsha yizhi de faxian, fajue yu yiyi [The discovery, excavation and significance of the Jinsha si
te at Chengdu]. Sichuan wenwu 2, 3–10.

It is easy to dodge a spear that comes in front of you but hard to avoid an arrow shot from behind.


Míng qiāng yì duǒ, àn jiàn nán fáng

Source: Sun, Yan. (2009). Sanxingdui. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1919–1921. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Sanxingdui (Sānxīngduī 三星堆)|Sānxīngduī 三星堆 (Sanxingdui)

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