Early in April this year, news broke that a 3,000-year-old “lost golden city” had been uncovered in Luxor, Egypt. Described in some articles as the most important find since the 1922 discovery Tutankhamen’s tomb, the city of Aten (founded sometime between 1391 and 1353 B.C. during Egypt’s 18th dynasty) appears to have been the largest settlement of that era. The discovery was prominently covered by such outlets such as ABC, NBC, The Washington Post and the New York Times, which noted that this comes as “Egyptology is having a big moment,” including not just the Aten find but also the long-awaited opening of a new Grand Egyptian Museum sometime this year.
But the lavish coverage of the Aten dig contrasted with the quiet reception in the United States, two weeks before, for a stunning set of discoveries, dating to about 1,200 B.C., at the site of Sanxingdui near Chengdu, the capital of China’s southwest Sichuan province. There, archaeologists unearthed more than 500 objects, including a large gold mask, ivory, bronzes and remnants of silk, with more coming. The finds include whole tusks of Asian elephants — evidence of tribute brought to the Sanxingdui leaders from across the Sichuan region and anthropomorphic bronze sculptures distinct from other contemporary East Asian bronzes (which were primarily ritual vessels and weapons).
The archaeological digs at Sanxingdui are ongoing, but already, they are giving unprecedented details about this important site, a crucial window into the early history of China. In contrast to the lukewarm coverage in the west, Chinese media interest was intense, with multiday, prime-time coverage, including a live broadcast of the excavations. The excitement shown by the Chinese was warranted. Since the first archaeological digs at the site in 1986, thousands of stunning artifacts belonging to this enigmatic culture have been unearthed, and they are transforming historians’ understanding of how multiple, regionally distinct yet interrelated early cultures within China intertwined to produce what came to be understood as “Chinese” civilization.
Video Tour of the Sanxingdui Museum
Rewriting the History of Early Civilizations
The archaeological digs at Sanxingdui are ongoing, but already, they are giving unprecedented details about this important site, a crucial window into the early history of China. In contrast to the lukewarm coverage in the west, Chinese media interest was intense, with multiday, prime-time coverage, including a live broadcast of the excavations. The excitement shown by the Chinese was warranted, for the finds at Sanxingdui are transforming historians’ understanding of how regionally distinct yet interrelated early cultures within China intertwined to produce what came to be understood as “Chinese” civilization. And since China is one of the cradles of world civilizations, its heritage is our mankind’s heritage.
Until this discovery, the dominant narrative of Chinese history has been that Chinese civilization came from a singular source — the Three Dynasties of the Xia, Shang and Zhou, all situated in the Central Plains of the Yellow River (Hwang He) valley in Henan province, Shaanxi province and surrounding areas. These dynasties lasted from roughly 2,000 B.C. to the unification of China, in 221 B.C. In particular, the sophistication of the last capital of the Shang dynasty, a city dating to around 1250 to 1050 BC near Anyang in Henan province, helped to solidify the belief that there was a single main source of subsequent Chinese culture, and that its epicenter was the Yellow River basin in the central plains. A subsequent major archaeological discovery which took place in 1974 – that of the tomb of the first emperor of Qin (famous for the thousands of terracotta warrior interned in his tomb) reinforced the notion that the power center of ancient China lay in the western part of the Central Plains.
But the finds at Sanxingdui have upended this monolithic notion of Chinese cultural development. The Sanxingdui discoveries, which are contemporary with the Shang remains, are located in Sichuan, hundreds of miles southwest of the Central Plains, and separated from them by the Qiling Mountains. The Sanxingdui discoveries has make clear that Chinese civilization did not simply emerge from the Central Plains and grow to subsume and assimilate the cultures of surrounding regions. Instead, it is a result of a process whereby various traditions, people, languages and ethnicities exited in parallel and woven together in a tapestry that is historically complex and multifaceted.
Much work remains for scholars of the Sanxingdui culture. The culture is hugely enigmatic. No texts have been found, nor is there any mention of this culture in the records of other provinces. Analysis of lead and other elements in the bronzes indicates sources similar to those of other cultures along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. At this point, Sanxingdui remains a unique and mystifying culture, whose full secrets have yet to be revealed.