Sanxingdui: ancient Sichuan revealed
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, February 13, 2001)

Scores of magnificent bronze objects came out of the ground in a corner of southwestern China in 1986, to everyone's surprise. They looked extremely odd to the people who found them, and they remain odd to anyone who examines them today. They are beautiful in certain ways, and grotesque in certain ways, but what makes them tantalizing is that they are not at all characteristic of China in the period when they must have been made, about 3,200 years ago. They constitute one of the great archeological finds of recent times, partly because they are so striking and partly because they prove the existence of a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization at Sanxingdui, in what is now Sichuan province, a place that was thought to have been primitive and remote at that time.

Some of the human-like figures found at Sanxingdui resemble aliens in the popular culture of our time; they might have been designed by an unusually talented art director on Star Trek. They have bulging eyeballs, big upturned mouths, curling noses, thick eyebrows. Some have the ears of animals or the feet of birds. Some are imaginary birds. In quality the bronzes are as good as those made in the same period within the Shang civilization, 1,200 kilometres to the east, but the imagery is original. In all the literature of ancient China there is no reference to this art, its meaning or the making of it. Nothing like it came earlier, so far as we know, and nothing like it came after.

But then, these particular objects could hardly have affected later art: They were methodically buried in the ground, in two big pits, probably dug about a century apart. They were carefully interred in layers, alongside stone, ceramic and jade objects. Mysteriously, the people who placed them there broke the sculptures into pieces, so that every piece has needed repair, usually the rejoining of three or four chunks to make it whole again. Some of the work was also burned before being consigned to the ground.

Little of it has yet been seen outside China, and even the one existing catalogue is in Chinese. But an exhibition, Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan, will make its first appearance in May at the Seattle Art Museum, move on to Fort Worth, reach the Metropolitan Museum in New York next year and eventually get to Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum, at a date not yet determined.

The broken sculpture of Sichuan has created a fresh mystery for archeologists, whose profession today offers more opportunities than it has in generations -- though of course it will never again recapture the romance of the 19th century, the time of freelance impresarios and one-man bands like Heinrich Schliemann, discoverer of Troy. Archeology today is rigidly controlled by governments anxious to protect what they consider their patrimony, on the dubious grounds that a modern nation owns whatever was left behind on its territory, even if it was created by entirely different people living by totally different beliefs.

There is a delightful notion that the 21st century will be as rich in archeological discoveries as the 20th. "The surprises are far from over," Barry Cunliffe of Oxford wrote last year in the preface to The Atlas of World Archeology. In China, the surprises never stop. So much is appearing that the government produces a weekly four-page broadsheet newspaper, the China Cultural Relics News, to describe new revelations. As Klaas Ruitenbeek of the Royal Ontario Museum's Far Eastern Department put it the other day, "The Chinese earth is stuffed with great objects."

Across the world, there's always news of unexpected finds, such as the Stonehenge-like structures discovered in Yemen near the Red Sea, which suggest a thriving but previously unknown culture four millennia ago; or the discovery of four long-submerged ships in the Indian Ocean off Kenya during one of Africa's first undersea archeological surveys. Archeological teams can use sensors that identify slightly loose soil covering buried objects (a stone wall, for instance) and infrared film that shows minute differences in plant life, sometimes indicating objects beneath the ground. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) beams, sent down from the space shuttle, burrow into the ground and find buried rivers (as they did in the Sudan) or even pre-historic footpaths (as in Costa Rica).

During the 20th century, analysis of styles and materials showed that links between apparently distinct civilizations were closer than anyone had previously imagined, so that after a while it was no longer surprising to learn that trade routes connected regions separated by as much as 4,000 kilometres, such as Anatolia and Afghanistan. In the new century, the understanding of the movements of populations will certainly grow, as archeologists assemble DNA evidence -- to show, for instance, how the Americas were (or, just conceivably, were not) populated by people who came across a land bridge from Siberia, and how these people spread and changed. DNA may be as important in the next few decades as radiocarbon dating was in the second half of the 20th century, when it provided the first persuasive evidence that humans had existed for millions of years.

Even so, happy accidents still happen. The Sichuan art was discovered because a bulldozer was digging up earth for a brick factory. The bulldozer operators immediately called the archeologists, so the record now shows exactly how this material was put in the ground. But that doesn't begin to explain why it was put there, and not one word in the historical record even refers to this method of burial, much less explains it.

One theory has it that destroying sacred objects was a renewal ritual, like deliberately tearing down a temple and rebuilding it. It's also possible that the pits are related to human burial, a great man's possessions being buried at the same time he was; but years of searching have uncovered no human graves nearby. Perhaps the objects were broken and buried because they had somehow lost their beneficent powers and turned into carriers of misfortune. They could have been associated with a deposed ruler (but would that same process have happened a second time, a century later?). When they opened the pits at Sanxingdui, the bulldozer operators revealed a puzzle that may remain one of archeology's teasing mysteries long into the 21st century.

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