New research may solve mystery of enigmatic Sanxingdui civilization of China

New research may solve mystery of enigmatic Sanxingdui civilization of China

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Golden Masks from Sanxingdui

New research may solve mystery of enigmatic Sanxingdui civilization of China

Amid the once-tranquil village of Sanxingdui, in a quiet part of Sichuan province in China, a remarkable discovery took place which immediately attracted international attention and has since rewritten the history of Chinese civilization. Two giant pits were unearthed containing thousands of gold, bronze, jade, ivory and pottery artifacts that were so unusual and unlike anything ever found in China before, that archaeologists realised they had just opened the door to an ancient culture dating back between 3,000 and 5,000 years.  However, the prime of Sanxingdui Culture came to an abrupt end in around 1,000 BC, and until now, the reason for its demise was a mystery.

New research presented at the 47th annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco on December 18, suggests that the disappearance of the Sanxingdui culture may be due to an earthquake that occurred around 3,000 years ago. LiveScience reports that the quake caused catastrophic landslides, which blocked the civilization’s main water supply, and diverted it elsewhere. Researchers have theorized that the Sanxingdui people may have moved closer to the new river flow.

The discovery of the Sanxingdui culture

In the spring of 1929, a farmer was digging a well when he discovered a large stash of jade relics. This was the first clue that eventually led to the discovery of a mysterious ancient kingdom. Generations of Chinese archaeologists searched the area without success until 1986, when workers accidentally found the pits containing thousands of artifacts that had been broken, burned, and then carefully buried.

The discovery of the artifacts opened up a world of intrigue. The objects found in the sacrificial pits included animal-faced sculptures and masks with dragon ears, open mouths and grinning teeth; human-like heads with gold foil masks; decorative animals including dragons, snakes, and birds; a giant wand, a sacrificial altar, a 4-metre tall bronze tree; axes, tablets, rings, knives, and hundreds of other unique items. Among the collection was also the world’s largest and best preserved bronze upright human figure, measuring 2.62 metres (8 feet).

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals at the base to support a few bronze figures closely resembling the large face masks

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals at the base to support a few bronze figures closely resembling the large face masks, each holding in outstretched hands a ceremonial offering of some sort. (Wikipedia) However, by far the most striking findings were dozens of large bronze masks and heads represented with angular human features, exaggerated almond-shaped eyes, straight noses, square faces, and huge ears. The artifacts were radiocarbon dated to the 12th-11th centuries BC. They had been created using remarkably advanced bronze casting technology, which was acquired by adding lead to a combination of copper and tin, creating a stronger substance that could create substantially larger and heavier objects, such as the life-size human statue and the 4-metre tall tree.

Sanxingdui bronze heads with gold foil masks

The advanced civilization of the Sanxingdui The ancient artifacts found in the two pits date to the time of the Shang dynasty, in the late second millennium BC, when the primary civilised society was flourishing in the Yellow River valley, in north China, thousands of miles from Sichuan. No similar find has been made anywhere else, and there are no inscriptions at the Sanxingdui site to shed light on its culture, which was apparently a distinctive Bronze Age civilization, unrecorded in historical texts and previously unknown. The discovery contributed to a fundamental shift from the traditional understanding of a single centre of civilization in north China to the recognition of the existence of multiple regional traditions, of which Sichuan was clearly one of the most distinct. A metropolis of its time, covering about three square kilometres, Sanxingdui had highly developed agriculture, including winemaking ability, ceramic technology and sacrificial tools and mining was commonplace. According to archaeological findings, the settlement at Sanxingdui was abandoned suddenly around 1,000 BC. For reasons that are still unknown, the prime of Sanxingdui Culture came to an abrupt end.

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