Sanxingdui mask relics record traces of Bronze Age

By Jenny Laing-Peach

Shanghai Star. 2004-05-20

RISING above the lush green farmlands around Guanghan City in Sichuan Province is the strangely ancient shape of the new Sanxingdui Masks Cultural Museum.

It is a new building, unorthodox and futuristic, but its massive bulk and slowly spiralling shape touches some atavistic imaginative memory of ancient ritual, sacrificial practices and mysterious ceremonies.

The Sanxingdui Museum was opened in 1997, and this second exhibition hall was opened this year, in the celebration holiday of May 1. It is an ample and efficient exhibition space, set in 20 hectares of landscaped gardens at the north-eastern corner of the Sanxingdui ruins. It is a major cultural unit under State protection.

The building is crowned by a huge tripod, slicing the skies and holding aloft three fantastic masks - giant, mega-human faces, gazing out with blank and pitiless stares, over the plain of Chengdu.

This museum houses and displays one of the most astonishing, mysterious and important collections of modern archaeology - the famous bronze masks of Sanxingdui.

These powerfully mysterious and strangely futuristic masks were found by accident and unearthed at Sanxingdui in 1986. They are 4,000 years old, dating from the early Shang period in the 14th century, and they are unlike anything found in early China or indeed anywhere else in the world.

The ruins of Sanxingdui and the art treasures found there are as old as the Pyramids of Egypt and the civilizations of Ancient Greece and Rome, Mesopotamia and Ancient India.

Amazing masks


Of all the amazing objects unearthed, it is the bronze heads and masks that are the most astonishing and which have become the symbol and face of Sanxingdui.

The masks are displayed in a curving glass wall and a central case of the Museum's first floor. Entering the Museum is to be taken into the spacious interior spiral which moves slowly through the mystery of 4,000 years ago, and ascends to levels that curve around a central exhibit of a bronze, nine-branched holy tree, whose delicate slender branches erupt into nine fantastic birds and flowers. A dragon, some of its curled tail missing, stretches around the trunk.

Visitors, tourists and holiday-makers in T-shirts and sandals, are silently watched by fantastic human faces that reach out of antiquity to hold our 21st century gaze.

With their other-worldly and unblinking stare they are surreal and futuristic, and they possess the disturbing quality of having come from another world.

Displayed are dozens of life-size heads and masks from China's, and the world's, early Bronze Age.

They are dramatic, bronze faces, whose exaggerated features are dominated by huge slanting, almond-shaped eyes, framed with deeply sculptured ridges and lines to indicate cheek-bones. There is a characteristic but eerie, horizontal ridge across the eyeballs, and some eyes bear traces of black pigment in the centre.

The faces have bold curled nostrils and fantastic tipped-out ears, which are pierced at the earlobes for earrings and ornament.

There are fragments of vermilion pigment clinging to the wide, tightly-closed lips.

Four of the heads wear masks of applied gold-leaf, and it gleams strangely over the green patina of the ancient bronze.

There is an unnerving sense of modernity in these shapes of powerful simplicity and geometric sculpture, and there are glimpses of poignant recognition of individual personal detail. On one head, with short hair, there is a rolled turban, another wears a carefully plaited queue down the back of the neck, and another sports a flamboyant bow, set at a jaunty angle.

There are three quite extraordinary heads - grotesque, zoomorphic human masks, 66cm high and 138cm wide, where animal forms are combined with human features.

These masks are huge, with enormous projecting sharp-tipped ears, and one has long cylindrical pupils protruding from slanting eyes under ridged eyebrows.

Another has bulging eyes and a long projection, rising upward to 68cm, from its nose.

These strange forms exude a sense of magical, super-human power, evoking a quality both bestial and human, and an otherworldliness that is fantastic and supernatural.

Perhaps most astonishing of all the archaeological finds at Sanxingdui is that of a life-size, standing human figure. It is a statue cast in bronze and shows both realism of style and undoubted symbolic ritual function.

It is a figure of authority and ceremony, a shaman, priest or king, and its high status is indicated by the symbolic detail of ornamentation on the elaborate costume.

This remarkable figure stands, barefoot, on a tall decorated base supported by four elephant - like heads. Its overall height is 260.8cm, and it is the only complete example of a large-scale human sculpture in bronze known from the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties.

The face has features similar to those of the bronze heads discovered at the Sanxingdui site. It wears a crown with a headband with incised motifs and then a headdresss that flares out and is decorated with intaglio lines.

There is a legband on each ankle and three bracelets on each arm. He wears a garment of great complexity, of three layers which are heavily embroidered with designs of scrolls, three-pointed crowns and the taotie (or stylized, horizontal animal face) mask that is characteristic of Shang art.

The figure has two uplifted arms, and each of the oversized hands forms an exaggerated circular grip which looks as if it once held a massive or curved object, perhaps an elephant tusk or a jade cong, an item of ritual ceremonial importance.

According to archaeologists the figure had been smashed into several pieces and then assembled through a second casting.

It had been buried in the middle of three burial layers and 60 charred elephant tusks had been scattered over the top.

Adding values

The museum also has on exhibition the astonishing array of other objects and artifacts, found with the masks and standing figure. There are some 1,000 relics of dazzling artistic and cultural value - bronzes and gold implements, jades, pottery, cowrie shell and elephant tusks, sacrificial objects, weapons and beads. Many are types never seen before.

The gold items with tracery of designs of birds, fish and human faces are unique. Also unique are the exquisitely designed and worked jades and the mysterious bronze fittings in the form of a five-spoke wheel - circular objects which may have been symbolic of the sun - and large diamond-shaped objects that seem to resemble eyes.

Adding to the mystery of these objects and their function was the varying degrees of fire damage occurring on all of them.

The artifacts were found in two pits, and observation has revealed that the objects were not disposed of randomly. It appears that before being placed in the pits, they had been burnt or broken.

The positioning of the objects, and the objects themselves have suggested to archaeologists that these were of ritual, ceremonial and sacrificial significance.

In Pit 1, there were also found animal bones, pig, sheep, goat, cow and oxen, and radio-carbon and stratigraphic analysis dates them to the period from the 14th to the 12th century BC.

There were no animal bones in Pit 2, which had contained the enormous number of impressive bronze items. Evaluation and analysis of the bronzes dates Pit 2 to the 12th or 11th century BC.

The two sacrificial pits at Sanxingdui, the contents and the great age is a world-shaking archaeological marvel, and marvellous also is that the discovery was made by accident.

In the spring of 1986, workers from a local brick factory were digging for clay when they came upon a collection of jade. They had found the spectacular Sanxingdui Pit 1.

On August 14, brickyard workers, again by accident, discovered the Pit 2, just 20 metres from the first.

Copyright by Shanghai Star.