Meditation & Health #20-China’s Cultural Relics The Mystery of Three Star Mounds
China’s Cultural Relics
THE MYSTERY OF THREE STAR MOUNDS
BY MU FENG & NING DI YUAN
In 1929, a peasant in the city of Guanghan in Sichuan Province discovered a pit full of jade and stone artifacts while digging a ditch. When the news broke, the mayor ordered that the artifacts be state-owned and disallowed mining for personal gain. In 1934, David Crockett Graham, director of Huaxi University Museum (now called Sichuan University Museum), led an archaeological team to continue the search for artifacts. Within the span of 10 days, more than 600 cultural relics were discovered. The discoveries generated international interest. The archaeological site, which stretches for 12 kilometers, contains three large connected mounds of earth located next to what is now known as Yue Liang Wan or Crescent Bay. The site is thus referred to as “Three Stars With the Moon” or Sanxingdui, meaning “Three Star Mounds” or “Three Star Piles.”
Legend has it that the “Heavenly Emperor” cast down three handfuls of earth, described as three stars in a row. This ancient fable intersects with modern reality, adding to the great mysteries surrounding the site. Archaeologists have determined that the piles are the remnants of the southern wall of an ancient city. Two breaches and subsequent collapse and erosion created the mounds of earth.
Stunning Archaeological Discovery
The Yellow River Basin was long regarded as the origin of culture and civilization and thus has been called the cradle of Chinese civilization. However, the discovery of Sanxingdui expanded this view. Just as the Yangtze River Basin and the Yellow River Basin are pivotal in the development of China, Sanxingdui plays an important role in Chinese civilization. Thorough analysis of the unearthed relics suggests that they are of similar sources to those of other cultures along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Sanxingdui is therefore reputed to be the “source of the Yangtze River civilization.”
According to current archaeological findings, the site confirms the continuous development of the Four Periods’ culture. The Sanxingdui culture corresponds to Periods Two and Three and is given the most attention.
The First Period: Baodun Culture
Baodun culture developed during Period One and existed for about 900 years. It is dated to approximately 4,100 to 5,000 years ago. This Neolithic civilization was built around the city of Chengdu. When compared to the emergence of bronze artifacts elsewhere as well as the notion of “country” in Majiayao and Longshan culture and ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in the same period, Baodun civilization did not make significant progress during those hundreds of years for reasons unknown.
The Second and Third Periods: Sanxingdui Culture
According to research, the second and third periods of civilization were the most prosperous time at the Sanxingdui site. The second period occurred about 3,600 to 4,100 years ago. The third period, which was the Bronze Age, occurred some 3,000 to 3,600 years ago. Some scholars believe that the unearthed cultural relics validate ancient Chinese literature on the Shu Kingdom.
The Fourth Period: Twelve Bridge Culture
The fourth period, known as the Twelve Bridge culture or Shiercliao culture, is estimated to have existed 2,600 to 3,000 years ago. Bronze casting reached maturity during this period. At the Sanxingdui site the many representative cultural relics, such as bronze masks, are examples of fine craftsmanship. The uncovering of certain cultural relics at Sanxingdui bearing some similarity to relics found at the Jinsha site is suggestive of a degree of interaction with other cultures of the same period. Sanxingdui changed long-held views on the origins of Chinese civilization. As a result, the Sanxingdui site is considered to be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, on a level with the Tomb of Tutankhamun, the Terracotta Warriors, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Sacred and Mysterious Cultural Relics
The artifacts found at the Sanxingdui site are considered national treasures and have opened up an intriguing world. Scholars believe that the cultural relics are centered on three themes: primitive religious beliefs, magical art masterpieces, and the rise and fall of a mysterious civilization.
The large and diverse relics unearthed at the Sanxingdui site include pottery, gold, marble and jade pieces, as well as bone implements and ivory objects. Sanxingdui’s bronze relics, however, have generated the most interest. The largest ancient bronze human form ever uncovered was a life-size figure measuring 2.6 meters tall and weighing 180 kilograms. A bronze tree of the same period standing nearly four meters is currently the world’s tallest bronze tree relic.
The collection of bronze masks is particularly striking and mysterious. The masks have angular features, exaggerated almond-shaped eyes, broad noses and mouths, square faces, and enormous ears. One of them, the world’s earliest and largest bronze mask, measures 1.32 meters in width and 72 centimeters in height. The three largest in the collection have markedly supernatural facial features: protruding pupils, animalistic ears, or the addition of an elaborate trunk. Many of the archaeological finds are representations of creatures that appear part human and part something else. Certain animal features, such as horns, wings and claws, are combined with humanoid traits.
Mystery of the Millennium
Archaeological work at the Sanxingdui site has continued in recent years. The city of Guanghan set up the Sanxingdui Museum (also known as the Three Star Piles Museum), and special research institutions are devoted to the study of the Sanxingdui site and its civilization.
Origin of Sanxingdui’s Civilization
The vast collections of objects from Sanxingdui do not resemble in style or craftsmanship the traditional Chinese bronze ware of similar era. Sanxingdui’s bizarre and monumental human figures do not look like Chinese people or any race of human being, but rather resemble Western impressions of aliens. Although some artifacts bear limited resemblance to findings from the Jinsha site, archeologists are not able to pinpoint the beginnings of the Sanxingdui civilization. It seems to have appeared out of nowhere, giving rise to speculation of extraterrestrial origins.
Some scholars have attempted to ascertain the source of the Sanxingdui civilization. However, to date, there are only seven Sanxingdui inscriptions found at the site. The information is insufficient to draw any conclusions. While Sanxingdui has the essential elements of a civilization, it is lacking in texts.
Archaeologists have uncovered about 80 untreated pieces of ivory and seashells. This breakthrough added to the mystery. Where did the ivory come from? As the plains of Chengdu are nowhere near the sea, why the seashells? Did the Sanxingdui ancestors living in the Bronze Age engage in extensive business trading?
Assuming Sanxingdui is the ancient Shu Kingdom, which may have existed for 2,600 years, it can also be assumed that a major event precipitated its demise. Although Sanxingdui is located along Yazi River, archaeologists have not found any trace of flooding. Thus, the possibility of the Sanxingdui civilization being wiped out by flooding has been ruled out. At one point, researchers found evidence of damage and fire, leading some to wonder if its decline was due to the ravages of war. However, it was later discovered that the damage had occurred hundreds of years later.
No concrete evidence exists to explain how such a great civilization could disappear altogether. Only a single theory remains: migration. But what made an entire civilization move away? The plains of Chengdu boast of fair climate and fertile soil; it is hard to imagine that famine or any disaster could have caused the whole population of Sanxingdui to migrate.
During his visit to Sanxingdui, the famous Chinese writer Yu Qiuyu remarked, “Great civilizations should exist with their own aura of mystery. Chinese civilization has always been studied and documented in great detail; it is indeed lucky that Sanxingdui remains the exception.” The tantalizing mystery of China’s lost civilization conjures endless possibilities in the imagination.