Records of Sanxingdui archaeology from 1934 to 2021

By ZENG JIANG / 01-21-2022 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTO: The excavation of Sanxingdui in 1986

Throughout the century of archaeological discoveries in China, there were only a handful of sites that were discovered early and have been excavated over a long period of time, with major discoveries, such as Sanxingdui in Guanghan, Sichuan Province. There are many legendary stories about Sanxingdui over its one-century archaeological history, among which three historical moments were most significant.

Debut in 1934
In the spring of 1929, while clearing a waterwheel in their yard, Yan Daocheng and his son found some jade objects in a ditch. The discovery in Yan’s yard marks the first record of Sanxingdui.
David Crockett Graham (1884–1961), known as “the first person who excavated at Sanxingdui,” was curator of the West China Union University Museum of Art, Archaeology and Ethnology, and a professor at the West China Union University [now a part of Sichuan University] starting in 1932. In 1934, he came to excavate in Yan’s courtyard with his assistant Lin Min-Juin. Graham had conducted fieldwork many times in Sichuan Province, and most of these excavations were recorded in his diaries. He left valuable records of the first archaeological excavation of Sanxingdui. 
Today, Graham’s diaries and other precious materials are preserved in the Smithsonian Institution Archives in the United States. It is mentioned in his diary that Luo Yucang, magistrate of Guanghan at that time, invited Graham and the West China Union University Museum, in the name of the local government, to explore Sanxingdui. Their excavation started on March 16, 1934, and was forced to stop ten days later due to looting. However, this excavation was still fruitful for a series of unearthed jade artifacts and other cultural relics.
In 1935, Graham published “A Preliminary Report of the Hanchow Excavation” in the Journal of the West China Border Research Society. It was the first archaeological excavation report of the Sanxingdui site in academic history. In this report, Graham made a detailed record of the first excavation of Sanxingdui—they used many archaeological tools at that time in order to understand the stratigraphic relationships clearly, and to accurately record the location of each precious artifact. Graham also wrote that keeping a full and detailed record of this excavation could reveal more of the local history and advocated valuing those buried cultures. 
Graham described his topographic observations in terms of “feng shui” [an ancient Chinese art of arranging buildings, objects, and space in an environment to achieve harmony and balance] which he had studied—Sanxingdui, a solitary tree, Yueliangwan [a crescent-shaped mound], and the surrounding land formed a significant environment favored in feng shui, and became the feng shui center of Guanghan.
Luo Yucang believed that the jade artifacts unearthed from this excavation were of “scientific value,” and donated them to the West China Union University Museum. Today, these cultural relics are still preserved and displayed in the Sichuan University Museum. 
Since archaeology at Sanxingdui was still in its infancy in those days, Graham could not have imagined that decades later, a large number of bronzeware and other cultural relics would be unearthed from Sanxingdui, giving the world a shock.
Great discoveries in 1986
When stopping the archaeological excavation in Sanxingdui, Graham wrote that the site was left for future archaeologists to explore and excavate. From then, Sanxingdui started a long wait. 52 years later, this mysterious site shone again as two sacrificial pits were discovered.
The summer of 1986, especially July 18, is worth remembering. On that day, Chen De’an and Chen Xiandan, two archaeologists from the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, were sorting out excavation materials found in the first half of the year in the dormitory of a brick factory at the Sanxingdui site (now the location of the Sanxingdui Site Workstation at the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute). Workers of the brick factory discovered some jade objects when they were digging trenches to collect clay at the site. Hearing the news, the archaeological team members immediately rushed to the site and started working. Chen Xiandan wrote a diary and made a valuable record about this excavation—“Diary of the Excavation of the Sacrificial Pits No. 1 and No. 2 at Sanxingdui Site.”
It was an “unforgettable summer in Sanxingdui.” In the hot summer, the archaeological team excavated overnight. Although dripping with perspiration, they were full of excitement. Absolute silence reigned in the late night, except for chirping crickets, croaking frogs, the voice of archaeologists occasionally talking in the pit, and the sound of shovels. When dawn came, they tried to fight the exhaustion that overwhelmed them and kept on working. In his diary, Chen Xiandan wrote: 
“It was at 2:30 am on July 30 [1986], and I was cleaning the central part of the northwestern side of the pit with bamboo sticks and brushes. Suddenly, I noticed something yellow under the dark debris. As I continued cleaning and digging, this artifact was gradually unveiled: it was made of gold, ornamented with fish-shapes and other carvings, and it was crooked. The more I dug and cleaned, the more nervous I became—maybe it was a ‘gold belt’ owned by a king of the ancient Shu Kingdom…The excavation continued, and more and more cultural relics were discovered. Soon, the whole body of this ‘gold belt’ appeared. It turned out to be a ‘gold scepter,’ which might be carried by the Shu king as a symbol of power. It was 1.42 meters in length. Carved onto it were images of fish, birds, and human figures wearing crowns. After 5:00 am, the local government dispatched 36 armed police officers to the site to maintain order as soon as they heard this news. At that time, I felt relieved and announced to the public that we had discovered the gold scepter of the king of the ancient Shu Kingdom. The news immediately caused a sensation, and people streamed to the site that day.”
Just when Pit No. 1 was basically cleaned up and the excavation materials were being sorted, the second pit was discovered and designated Pit No. 2, which was also recorded in Chen Xiandan’s dairy:
“Friday, August 14, Sunny
We sorted out the excavation materials of the sacrificial pit at the brick factory. At 18:00, Yang Yongcheng, a worker at the brick factory, came to report that cultural relics were found not far from the Sacrificial Pit No. 1. I rushed to the site immediately and found that it was another sacrificial pit…A bronze mask has been exposed, and I saw other items of the ash layer.”
New excavation in 2019
December 2, 2019, was an exciting Winter of Sanxingdui. Archaeologists made a new plan for the archaeological excavation and research of Sanxingdui, and restarted an in-depth investigation and exploration of the site. Experts believed that there would be more big discoveries in Sanxingdui. As the work progressed through that day, traces of “pits” started to emerge—when digging an excavation unit, a corner of Pit No. 3 was found, and the edge of a bronze vessel was exposed. Lei Yu and Ran Honglin, the director and deputy director of the Sanxingdui Site Workstation, rushed to the site quickly. The archaeological team found it difficult to identify what the bronze artifact was based merely on its exposed part, so they invited the former team leader, Chen De’an, to the site.
“It’s a wide-mouthed zun [a type of ancient bronze vessel], definitely,” Chen De’an said as he went down the pit and explored the vessel. Following this discovery, five pits—Pits No. 4 to No. 8—were discovered one after another. With the preparatory work completed, archaeological excavations on the six newly discovered pits were launched on October 9, 2020.
Over the past century, the way to record and share major archaeological discoveries has changed substantially. Various new media formats have become new platforms for real-time recording and communication. Lei Yu is an expert photographer. In front of his camera, there are cultural relics, and people who came to the Sanxingdui site—scholars, students, technicians, security personnel, hosts, journalists, etc. “All the archaeological records [of Sanxingdui] could be published as a book,” a reader said.
Over the past century, three major excavations of Sanxingdui—the spring of 1934, the summer of 1986, and the winter of 2019—constitute the wonderful “Sanxingdui Trilogy.”