Re-visit to Sanxingdui, Back to the Magic City of Bronze
By Yi, Xiao.
Since 1996, several Neolithic ancient cities were discovered in succession: The Ancient City of Bao Dun and Pixian, Mang City in Dujiangyan, and Wenjiang Yufu City. After these ancient cities declined one by one, the survivors fled to Sanxingdun beside the Duck River. Together with the arrival of immigrants from Xia Dynasty, they brought bronze civilization and jade ware sacrificial system to Chengdu plain, and finally gained the dominion of Chengdu plain.
As Baodun keeps giving surprises to the world, the ancient Sanxingdui doesn’t make us upset. In the summer of 1986, beside the Duck River in Guanghan, the digger of a brickyard excavated two amazing treasures by accident: two sacrificial pits ,which buried abundant treasures. The excavated bronze human head portrait, zongmu mask, bronze holy tree, golden staff and yuzhang enable people to have a peek at ancient shu civilization. Twenty years later, the land beside Duck River hit the world again. A huge building base was discovered in Qingguan Mountain, a place in Sanxingdui ancient city.
In a winter morning of 2012, I walked through the ribbings in the mist of Chengdu plain and arrived at Qingguan Mountain. A rectangular building base long 55m and wide 15m could be distinguished in the huge archaeological prospecting. According to the remaining pillar hole, this building is composed of six to eight rooms long six to eight meters and deep three meters around, symmetrically distributed by the gallery in the middle. There is a row of intensive pits on each side of the wall base, amount to nearly 200. They might have been the pillars supporting the eaves. The bottom of the pillars is built by sintering soil and lots of pebbles.
Qingguan Mountain, with Duck River to its north and Ma Mu River to its north, occupies the highest position of Sanxingdui. Standing here, a panoramic view of the ancient city will come into sight. The archaeological exploration points out that vast sintering soil and rammed earth of Shang Dynasty, an area of 16000 square meters, are distributed in the tableland of Qingguan Mountain. That’s the second building base discovered in China, next to the No.1 palace base in Huanbei, Anyang.
Due to geographic limitation, Qingguan Mountain has not been completely discovered yet. But it triggers many speculations during scholars. Professor of history faculty in Sichuan University, Lin Xiang believes that considering the foundation of jade and ivory, Qingguan Mountain base is a ceremonial architecture, so it might be a temple of ancient Shu Kingdom; Professor Liu Xu from Peking University Archaeology and Museology College thinks that it is a royal warehouse. The site of warehouse was found in the ancient city of Shang and Zhou Dynasty from time to time, usually set at the border of the city, that’s exactly where Qingguan Mountain lies. Temple or warehouse, Qingguan Mountain has the spirit of a King. It is honored as the greatest discovery after discovering the two sacrificial pits.
Baodun culture, the soil breeding Sanxingdui
Since 1986, Sanxingdun site has experienced over 10 times’ excavation which shows that the civilization of Sanxingdui has lasted for over 2000 years, and it could be divided into four phases. The unearthed cultural relics of the first phase are mainly pottery, for instance, hollow round foot bean, open round foot pot and so on. It is quite different from the typical relics of Sanxingdui such as flat-bottomed tin. It seems that they belong to two different culture.
This phenomenon confused archaeologists a lot. After discovering Baodun, Mang city and Yufu city, they finally realized that the first phase of Sanxingdui is the culture of Baodun. That’s to say, Sanxingdui appeared as early as in the Neolithic period, Baodun culture is the soil breeding it. According to the statistics provided by the master of Sanxingdui work station Lei Yu, the range of the first phase is 3.7 to 5 square meters, outnumbering the total area of Baodun, Mang city and Yufu city, but the wall is still not found. “From Neolithic period on, ancient Shu people along the Duck River exchanged frequently, the wall of the city is hard to remain. While after Baodun and Yufu city were abandoned, around 2000 years later, there are signs of human activity of Han Dynasty.” Lei Yu said. Though the existing city wall of Sanxingdui was built up in Shang Dynasty, he believes that the wall appeared in the Neolithic period.
After other ancient cities dying out, the civilization finally transferred to the area beside the Duck River. Such evaluation is marked by the appearance of some wares: bronze is one of them. The workers of brickyard once dug a ware pit of late Xia and early Shang Dynasty when taking soil from a mound called “Tu bao bao”. There were two bronze medals in it, having taotie design with turquoise inside. That’s the oldest bronze ware in Sichuan so far. In China, such bronze medal, an ornament hung in front of the chest or at the waist by ancient people, was only excavated in Henan before.
Some other jade wares such as axe were unearthed, too. Nearly all sorts of jade axe typical of Er’litou were discovered in previous excavations of Sanxingdui. From the second phase on, Taohe appeared at Sanxingdui, which is a cooker with three bag-like feet as base, a tube-like spout and a handle on one side. In the history of Chinese civilization, the invention of He owes to people of Er’litou. They created this special pottery modelling on the shape of chicken and bird. Er’litou is a city in late Xia Dynasty. It represents the culture of Xia.
Considering the existing age of the wares, Erlitou is earlier than Sanxingdui, they can’t influence each other by direct contact, so the only way of interaction is to inherit, which is mainly performed by tribal migration in ancient China. Researcher from Archaeology Institute of Hunan Province Xiang Taochu believes that it relates to the migration of survivors of Xia Dynasty: in the early Shang, late Xia Dynasty, Shang people started to eliminate the people of Xia with great force. Deported by the chariots of Shang, a group of survivors crossed E’xi and the Three Gorges, arriving at Chengdu plain. In this process, some tribes in Three Gorges basin joined the migration, which could be told by the ceramic handle in the shape of a bird head that was only unearthed in the area of Three Gorges.
Along with the arrival of survivors of Xia, several ancient cites of Baodun culture declined in succession, while the population of Sanxingdui soared. And the scale of Sanxingdui expanded soon. We have reasons to believe that this group of survivors of Xia, cooperating with the aboriginal tribes, eliminated and annexed other ancient cities, finally gained the dominion of Chengdu plain. According to historical records, after setting up Xia Dynasty, Da Yu casted nine tripods representing the nine continents. From then on, nine tripods become the symbol of crowns in ancient China. So, in Xia Dynasty, people have mastered bronze casting technology. It’s not surprising that the survivors of Xia brought bronze civilization and jade ware sacrificial system to Chengdu plain.
“The Imperial Palace”, “Temple of Heaven”, “Temple of Earth” of Sanxingdui
The mound “Cang bao bao” in Zhenwu village was found the residue of a city wall by Lei Yu and his colleagues in July 2013. It is about 400m long and 20 to 30 meters wide, built in Shang Dynasty. Later the north city wall was found beside the Duck River, 210m long and 15m wide. Once the north wall is extended to the east and west side, it will connect with the east and west wall discovered previously. The east wall is 1100 meters long, having five stumps. On the wall, the archeologists found three rows of ridge built by mud-bricks, which is very different from the parallel plate construction style in the middle plain. It manifests that ancient Shu people in Shang Dynasty have developed a superb technology in building.
The confirmation of the two new city walls, increasing the total number of the walls of Sanxingdui from 5 to 7, makes the outline and layout of Sanxingdun much clearer: the ancient city is 1800m (north) to 2100m (south) long from east to west, 2000m long from south to north. The total area is 3.6 square kilometer. Such enormous ancient city of Shang Dynasty is rare in China. Zhengzhou Shangcheng is regarded as the capital “Bo” of King Shang Tang, covering an area of 3.6 square kilometer which is smaller than Huanbei Shangcheng with an area of 4.7 square kilometer.
In the center of the ancient city there is a crescent-like triangular platform, being called “moon bay” by local people. In the spring of 1929, peasant Yan Daocheng dug out more than 400 jade wares at the bottom of a ditch beside the yards in his home in Moon Bay. At once Guanghan became famous for jade wares. Sanxingdui, who kept sleeping for thousands of years, wakes up and shocks the world. Walking southward from Moon Bay, crossing the Ma Mu River, you’ll arrive at Sanxingdui. Going down, you’ll see three joining mounts, where the renowned sacrificial pit was discovered. Walking northward from Moon bay is Xikanquan platform.
After visiting Sanxingdui, architect Yanghongxun said that Moon Bay is just like the Imperial Palace. Sanxingdui in the south is the Temple of Heaven. Xikanquan in the north is the Temple of Earth, while Shizinao in the east and Hengliangzi in the west are the Temple of Sun and the Temple of Moon respectively. The layout of Sanxingdui resembles Beijing a lot, owning the spirit of a king. This is just for joking, but the layout of Sanxingdui is truly made clear this time. However, the district of temple, tomb and palace still need more excavation in order to have a full view of the layout of the ancient city.
Ancestor legends and multiple worship are the theme of Sanxingdui Civilization
Grand buildings and vast territory witness the prosperity of the ancient city. Sangxingdui of Shang Dynasty was at its zenith, becoming the most powerful country in Sichuan basin, even in the southeast of China. “Sacrifice and Battle are the two most important things for a country”, bronzes were forged continuously, jade were mined from Min Mountain, gold were forged into gold foil, for memorizing and honoring their ancestors and gods, and showing their imaginations towards sun, trees and eyes. In 1986, the news that these strange antiques were unearthed from two sacrificial pits hit the world. The Independent comments raise people’s realization of China metal forging into a new standard, no matter in quality or in quantity.
What surprises Englishman is the bronze human head portrait of life-size, 13 unearthed in No.1 pit and 44 unearthed in No.2 pit. They have big and flat mouth, bulging eyes and serious expression. Former associate director of Sichuang Province Archaeology Institute Zhao Dianzeng finds out that the portraits could be divided into several styles, 80% of which wearing flat topped crown and whiskers. They might be the main tribe of Sanxingdui, forming the ruling classes together with other tribes and clans.
Four of the portraits wear solid gold mask, which makes Sanxingdui link with ancient Egypt and Greek civilization where gold masks have been found. Apparently, the portraits with gold mask have a more eminent position. They might be giants or wizards when alive.
Scholars generally considered that the portraits had bodies before, only built by wood or mud instead of bronze. In Sanxingdui, only one portrait 260cm tall is forged all in bronze. It was unearthed with Zongmu masks, human head portraits, jade wares and ivories, wearing double crowns and three layers of gorgeous clothes. Zhao Zengdian points out that such portraits occupy the highest position, are the head of wizards in ancient shu kingdom.
In that summer, Sanxingdui opened another door of Chinese bronze civilization. A bronze holy tree 396cm tall with nine flying birds on was discovered, much like the holy tree Fusang recorded in the Classic of Mountains and Rivers which connects with god. The eyes on Zongmu masks exaggeratedly bulge out, the ears open like wings. Such features tally with the depiction of the first king of Shu kingdom Chancong in historical records. Diamonds, obtuse triangles and right triangles are assembled into wide staring eyes. There is no other nations who worship eyes so much in ancient civilizations already known to the world.
Since Dayu built Jiuding, Ding, Zun, Lei, Yi and so on are the main current of Chinese bronze civilization. But Sanxingdui creates its own system: the holy trees, the bronze portraits, the flying birds and the mysterious eyes. Maybe when the breeze blows the ancient city, all the people could hear the music played by metal swaying and colliding. The tinkling sounds prove that a great Bronze Age is reaching its peak at Chengdu plain.
According to the lead isotope determined lately, the bronze materials of Sanxingdui has origin of high radioactivity which is only produced in Yunnan Huize County. Coincidentally, the bronze material of Yinxu Fuhao tomb comes from Huize, too. That may explain why Shu is always paralleled with the war.
The King of Shang wanted to attack Shu kingdom at first, but because of the dangerous roads of Shu, he changed his attitude and became friendly with shu people in the end. The exquisite bronze casting technology of Shang began to have an influence on Chengdu plain at that time. The bronze Zun and Lei unearthed from the sacrificial pits are copies of those in central plains. But Ding and Gui representing power are still not found. Thus, ancient shu people are not interested in the monarchical system of Shang Dynasty. The Yuge and Yuyuan of Sanxingdui are rather like the one in Yinxudian. It enables Sanxingdui to inherit the long history of Chinese civilization as well as remaining its rich imagination.
Transportation: Xin Nan Men Bus Station, direct to Sanxingdui (8:30, 15:30)
Zhao Jue Si Bus Station (every 20min) ---30min---Guanghan---six stops---Sanxingdui Museum
Direct bus at Jin Li Street and Kuan Zhai Alley
Entrance ticket: 80rmb for Sanxingdui Museum