Sanxingdui suggests possible influence of outside cultures

By SHI JINSONG / 03-23-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A bronze standing figure unearthed from Pit 2 at the Sanxingdui site Photo: CFP

According to mainstream views, the emergence of the Sanxingdui culture roughly corresponds to the period of the Erlitou Culture (c. 1800–1500 BCE) [a culture centered in the Central Plain, considered the first state-level society in China]. This speculation was made mostly due to similarities between some bronze artifacts and jade zhang [a blade-shaped ritual object] unearthed at Sanxingdui and the Erlitou cultural relics of the same type. However, since the Sanxingdui culture was of the Bronze Age, it can only have begun in the Bronze Age. An archaeological culture should not span the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. The Sanxingdui culture probably emerged alongside the Bronze Age in the Chengdu Plain, roughly mid-13th century BCE or earlier. During the Erlitou cultural period, some artifacts similar in style to those of the Central Plain influenced the Chengdu Plain. They represented cultural exchanges occurring prior to the Bronze Age.


Archaeological findings indicate that the Sanxingdui culture didn’t disappear with the occurrence of sacrificial pits or the abandonment of the Sanxingdui City, but continued to develop in the Chengdu area centered on the present-day Jinsha site [located 40 km away from the Sanxingdui site; Experts generally accept that the Jinsha culture is a continuation of the Sanxingdui culture] until around the 8th century BCE. After the decline of the Jinsha settlement, the Bashu culture dominated the Chengdu Plain during the Eastern Zhou era (770–256 BCE). At the time, the Chengdu Plain was strongly influenced by the Chu [a Zhou Dynasty vassal state] and Central Plain cultures, and its culture evolution started to converge with those of the Central Plain.

Sanxingdui-Jinsha culture

After many religious and sacrificial items were destroyed and buried at Sanxingdui, the political, religious, and cultural center of the Chengdu Plain shifted from Sanxingdui to Jinsha. Sanxingdui and Jinsha successively became the Bronze Age center of the Chengdu Plain. Like Sanxingdui, a wealth of precious items has been excavated at Jinsha. The archaeological materials from Sanxingdui and Jinsha present the same knowledge and value systems, and so are considered belong to the same culture, namely the Sanxingdui-Jinsha culture. The culture remains reveal many unique phenomena.

Archaeological relics of the Sanxingdui-Jinsha culture include almost everything considered valuable in the Bronze Age. Items made of gold, bronze, jade, turquoise, agate, lacquerware, silk fabrics, ivory, and seashells have been found at the sites. Studies show that most of these valuables and key technologies appeared abruptly. The Neolithic Baodun culture laid the foundation of the Sanxingdui-Jinsha culture but was not its only source. Most of the items, key technologies, and concepts of the Sanxingdui-Jinsha culture are absent from the Baodun culture, and there is no evidence of metalworking in the Neolithic culture of the Chengdu Plain. After the Sanxingdui-Jinsha culture, these valuables disappeared. These findings suggest that populations and cultural factors may have converged in the Chengdu Plain from outside the region [during the Sanxingdui-Jinsha cultural period].

Convergence of outside cultures

Studies reveal that many unearthed precious items dated to this period may have come from outside the Chengdu Plain, mainly classified into four categories: bronzeware, jadeware, ivory, and seashells.

Some bronze vessels unearthed at Sanxingdui are also found in the Central Plain and other regions, most of which are wide-mouthed zun vessels, characterized by a wide mouth, straight belly, circular foot, and mainly decorated with shou-mian [lit. animal face] motifs. These features are also consistent with the bronzes unearthed at the Yinxu site [the last capital city of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE)]. These bronze vessels indicate that Sanxingdui culture was influenced by the Shang culture. Still, the Sanxingdui zun vessels have their own characteristics in detail, such as fewer motifs on the neck, plate-shaped standing bird decorations on the shoulder, and the xi-shou [the three-dimensional animal-face decorations] on the upper part of the belly. It is reported that the newly excavated bronze vessels vary in sophistication, and are seemingly not all made locally. The alloy composition analysis of some bronze statues and vessels unearthed in pits 1 and 2 [at Sanxingdui] shows that they may have been produced in the same place from the same batch of ore. However, experts haven’t ruled out the possibility that some vessels were brought from outside.

The jade objects unearthed at Sanxingdui and Jinsha were much more complex. Some of them closely resemble objects of the same type found in other regions, a hint that they may have been introduced to the Chengdu Plain from outside. Another source of the Sanxingdui-Jinsha jadeware is the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, including jade cong [hollowed-out cylinders that are round on the inside and square on the outside], hoop-shaped artifacts, and collared bi [a disk with a hole in the center]. In particular, the tallest jade cong unearthed at Jinsha, with its surface divided into several sections by shallow lines cut into it, is considered a typical Liangzhu [a culture from 4,500-5,300 years ago featuring the systematized production and use of jade] style.

The most abundant and characteristic items unearthed on the Chengdu Plain were made of ivory. At Sanxingdui, 13 tusks were unearthed in Pit 1, and 67 in Pit 2, together with some ivory beads and ivory fragments. Of the six newly excavated, it is reported that except for Pit 6 without ivory and Pit 5 with only ivory objects, each pit was filled with dozens or even hundreds of tusks, with Pit 8 containing as many as 370 tusks. A huge amount of ivory was also unearthed at Jinsha, weighing several tons. 

One of the key research topics of ivory is its origin. One view is that the ivory was derived from the Chengdu Plain and its surrounding areas, since elephant molars and skulls were also unearthed there. Records of local elephants in ancient texts and paleoenvironmental studies also suggest a tropical and subtropical climate used to exist on the Chengdu Plain at that time, which was suitable for elephants. The reduction of ivory after the decline of Jinsha was thought to relate to climate change and habitat destruction by humans. Another view is that ivory may have come from other regions, such as from exchanges with the Shang in the Central Plain or imported from India. Both views lack research on the ivory itself. Currently, several research teams are conducting strontium, oxygen, and carbon isotope studies on the ivory from Sanxingdui, comparing the ivory on the Chengdu Plain with those from other regions, which should reveal the origin of the ivory. The ivory unearthed at Sanxingdui and Jinsha likely had multiple sources, as the huge amount of ivory in both regions and the absence of ivory from the other sites in southwestern China after the Sanxingdui-Jinsha culture suggest, that these items were more like short-term imports. However, the existence of elephant molars and skulls indicates that there may have been elephants in the local area.

Seashells unearthed at Sanxingdui are undoubtedly not local. Sanxingdui is one of the Chinese Bronze Age sites from which the largest quantity of seashells has been unearthed. 62 seashells unearthed from Pit 1 and 4,600 from Pit 2 include money cowries, tiger cowries, and ring cowries. Seashells were also found in Pits 3, 7, and 8. Opinions differ regarding the origin and transmission route of these seashells. Early research suggested that they were from the Central Plain, or introduced from the East China Sea via the Yangtze River. Others believe they are mostly from Southwest Asia and the Indian Ocean coast or imported from India. Later research suggests that ring cowries can only be obtained from the Indian Ocean, and those found in Sanxingdui were the result of direct economic and cultural exchanges between the ancient Shu people and the Indian region, serving as a means of trade. 

Currently, it is widely recognized that seashells are primarily distributed in tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific, and are not found along the eastern coast of China. Seashells are abundant in Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in China, and research on seashells should not be limited to the Chengdu Plain. Studying the seashells unearthed from various parts of China reveals that they were first found in the Neolithic cultures in western China, then spread to the eastern coastal areas, but never reached south of the Yangtze River, even during their peak usage. Many seashells may have been imported from the Eurasian Steppe. 

Recent research suggests that seashells first appeared in the northwest of China, and the areas where seashells were concentrated from the late Neolithic period to the early Bronze Age were along the line from present-day Gansu, Qinghai, and Ningxia to Tibet and Sichuan. Interestingly, this new research also indicates that the northwest is the only region in China where turquoise, seashells, and agate were continuously unearthed. With expanding distribution, items made of these materials became ceremonial objects. Sanxingdui is where the three “converged.” Turquoise-inlaid bronze plaques were excavated from Sanxingdui, while agate was found in Pits 2 and 8. This indicates that all three were introduced from the outside, suggesting a connection with the northwest of China.

Resources and technologies 

Some key technologies, important resources, and special beliefs may have entered the Chengdu Plain from different directions during this period. The huge, unique bronze vessels, found only at Sanxingdui, were likely locally made. However, there is no evidence of bronze production in the Chengdu Plain’s Neolithic culture, so the bronze technology must have come from elsewhere, most likely northwestern China. The recently discovered Xichengyi site in Zhangye, Gansu Province, may have been a metallurgical center in the Hexi Corridor. There, at least around 4,100 years ago a metallurgical industry may have developed. Another possible source is the east of China. The Shijiahe culture in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River may have produced bronzeware, as objects and related relics were found at several sites among its ruins. 

Gold is another precious resource. Influenced by the Eurasian steppe culture, ancient China also had the custom of using gold as decoration, and northwestern China was the first to bury gold ornaments with the deceased. In the Bronze Age, gold artifacts were mainly distributed in northwestern China, the Central Plain, and the Chengdu Plain. Gold objects have evolved from decorations to symbols of wealth and power. The types and quantities of gold objects unearthed at Sanxingdui and Jinsha are numerous. All were products of the Sanxingdui-Jinsha culture, indicating that they were locally made. However, the source of the gold remains uncertain.

The source of the jade also needs to be clarified. Thousands of jade artifacts have been unearthed at Sanxingdui and Jinsha. Investigations of ore sources reveal most of the jade objects were made from local ore. Some materials may have come from the Longmen Mountains in the northwest of the Chengdu Plain, and some from nearby sites.

The unique style of the Sanxingdui cultural relics has long been of interest. The Chinese Bronze Age during the Sanxingdui period had already been able to communicate with and be influenced by foreign civilizations. The most prominent sun worship in the Sanxingdui-Jinsha culture did not seem to exist in the Baodun culture, and probably came from other regions. In the Hemudu culture and Liangzhu culture in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, some jade objects, bone carvings, and ivory carvings express the worship of the sun. The exchange of goods inevitably involved contact between people. Technologies and beliefs are also spread by humans, and it can be confirmed that there was once large number of personnel with specialized knowledge and skills coming to the Chengdu Plain from different regions.

Shi Jinsong is a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.