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Days of exploring Sanxingdui in the life of an archaeologist

ZHAO DIANZENG | 2022-12-01 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Zhao Dianzeng, Chen Xiandan, and Chen Xianghua (from left to right) discussing how to best take aerial shots of the Sanxingdui site from a helicopter in 1981 Photo: Courtesy of Zhao Dianzeng

My archaeological study of Sanxingdui began in the spring of 1980. At that time, our archaeological team was the Department of Ancient History under the Sichuan Museum. The department only had a staff of around 20 people, and they were responsible for the archaeological work of the whole province. On April 13, Fan Guijie, Hu Changyu, Li Zhaohe [all archaeologists], and I decided to visit the Yueliangwan site [an archaeological site close to the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdui] in Guanghan, Sichuan Province. At that time, Sanxingdui was less famous than Yueliangwan, which had been excavated several times around 1949.

We set out in a Beijing Jeep and looked for guidance all along the way. On arriving at the entrance to Sanxingdui Village, a villager came to ask us what we were looking for. After answering that we were seeking unearthed tile fragments, we were told where to find them. We walked to the quarry of a brick factory and observed the sections. The cliff cutting at the quarry was hundreds of meters long, and a meter-thick band of black deposits was visible on the cliff face, including the presence of various early cultural relics. Ceramic and stone artifacts collected by workers were piled up at the center of the site. Soon, we selected more than 300 pieces and loaded them into the car. The car was so fully loaded that we had to put our feet on two large wooden boxes, each of which were filled with bronzeware. Everyone was thrilled, talking about how we had never found such a big and rich early site during our many years of archaeological work in Sichuan. It would be a great loss if they were destroyed by the brick factory. Drastic action was necessary. This discovery lifted a curtain to over 40 years of continuous archaeological excavations at the Sanxingdui site.

Excavations at Sanxingdui

From May 1980 to June 1986, six excavations were carried out at the Sanxingdui site. Findings of the first excavation from May 1980 to May 1981, divided the timeline of the culture of the Sanxingdui site into three phases, dating from 4,500 to 3,200 years BP. The fourth phase was identified during the second excavation in 1982, dating from 3,100 to 2,800 years BP. Finally, the dates, phases and cultural characteristics of the Sanxingdui site had been determined, and the “Sanxingdui Culture” was formally proposed in the report. The third excavation in 1984 resulted in more early cultural layers, later named “Phase I of the Sanxingdui Culture.”

In 1986, although most of the brick workers had been disbanded, brick kilns were still operating. The archaeological team members who were sorting cultural relics at the workstation allowed workers to continue collecting clay for bricks. Coincidentally, significant cultural relics for which we had been searching for years were discovered by workers at this time. On July 18, dozens of jade objects were found when workers dug for clay. The archaeological team immediately protected the site, and then organized a formal excavation. This was how the sacrificial Pit No. 1 was discovered. On August 14, the sacrificial Pit No. 2 was found. More than 2,000 pieces of exquisite and peculiar bronze, gold, jade, and stone artifacts were unearthed. The brick factory was eventually shut down and removed, and the Sanxingdui site was henceforth fully protected.

The discovery of the sacrificial pits at Sanxingdui shocked the world. Like an “open sesame” moment, Sanxingdui presented a lost civilization hidden in plain sight. In those days, we were all busy, exhausted, yet zealous. It was midsummer when we excavated the sacrificial pits. In order to avoid the heat, we often worked at night. At midnight of July 27, Chen De’an suddenly knocked on my door and shouted loudly: “A big discovery! A big discovery! We found a golden scepter, and a life-sized bronze head!” Sanxingdui excavation project thus entered a new stage.

After that, six additional excavations from 1989 to 1995 further confirmed that there used to be a “Sanxingdui ancient city” with an area of 3.6 million square meters approximately 3,000-4,000 years ago. It was a unique regional culture center in the early stages of Chinese civilization.

Speculations of Sanxingdui culture

After retiring in 2004, I still pay attention to Sanxingdui archeology and visit the site several times each year. Over the years, I started to focus on the reasons, significance, and value of the formation of Sanxingdui culture.

As for the Sanxingdui sacrificial pits, I believe that the artifacts unearthed in the pits are basically statues of deities and ritual vessels used for sacrificial ceremonies. The burial method itself embodies unique sacrificial meanings, and the sacrificial pits themselves are the final result of some kind of religious ceremony. At that time, perhaps “a large amount of social wealth was devoted to gods, and [the kingdom] fell further and further into the quagmire of excessive deity worship until it finally collapsed.” It may be the fundamental cause for the rapid decline of this theocratic rule. The production of a large amount of deity statues and ritual vessels might have greatly exceeded the capacity of the ancient kingdom, and eventually triggered serious economic crises and social panic.

It is likely that a severe plague broke out in the ancient kingdom of Sanxingdui, and quickly led to a large number of people and animals’ death. Even their “religious leader, who was also the ruler,” probably died from the plague. In the face of this incomprehensible and unavoidable disaster, faith in the gods was shaken. People’s faith in the efficacy of their statues and artifacts may have eroded. So they moved some of the statues and ritual vessels from their temple, including the king’s golden scepter, to the sacrificial area on the southwest of present-day Sanxingdui, and held a grand “burning ceremony.” During the ceremony, they burnt and smashed those statues, offerings, and human and animal bones, and buried them in what we call the Pit No. 1 today, in a solemn and orderly manner. In their mind, perhaps, these rituals symbolized that these items had been sent back to the realm of gods. In this way, they prayed to gods and ancestors to help them eliminate the disaster and bless them again. 

However, these measures didn’t seem to work, and the disaster grew more and more grave. People were getting desperate. They brought more statues and ritual vessels out of the temple and threw them into a fire. This larger-scale ceremony thus formed the sacrificial pits No. 2 and No. 3.

After several failures of the burning ceremony, people of the ancient kingdom felt that they could no longer live there. They had no choice but to burn all the statues and ritual vessels, creating sacrificial pits No. 7 and No. 8 in the process. In the end, the temple was burnt down, and was buried with all the broken pieces and some burnt clay. They were found above the cultural layer that includes ritual remnants and the layer containing ivory items in Pit No. 8. The capital of the ancient kingdom was probably moved to the present-day Jinsha site in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. The above are some rough speculations I have made over the years of studying Sanxingdui.

The temple

From 2005 to 2013, the archaeological team found a “big house” of over 1,000 square meters on the platform in the northwest of the Sanxingdui site, which was called the “No. 1 Building on Qingguanshan” for short. When I visited the foundation for the first time, I put forward that it might be a “temple.” At that time, my speculation was recognized by the teachers from Sichuan University, but wasn’t adopted by the excavators. 

The journal Sichuan Cultural Relics published the excavation report of the “No.1 Building on Qingguanshan” in the fifth issue of 2020, together with an article by the archaeologist Du Jinpeng. Du’s article proposed that it might be a building with upper and lower floors, belonging to the highest-ranking palace category in the Shang Dynasty, and may have been a ceremonial building for the local ruler to handle government affairs and hold grand ceremonies. I doubted whether the “No.1 Building on Qingguanshan” was in fact a building with upper and lower floors, and wrote Du to discuss it.

In my opinion, the “No.1 Building on Qingguanshan” at Sanxingdui site “was likely a large single-floor building with double-sloped roof and multiple layers of eaves.” There was probably a “passage” running through the building. The central axis and the passage of the building were in a southeast-northwest direction, pointing to the “sacred mountain” in the northwest. Platforms might have been built on both sides of the passage, used for housing deity statues, ritual vessels, and other utensils. In short, it was likely a “temple” that housed and preserved many deity statues and utensils. There, people held grand ritual ceremonies as well as important meetings to exercise administrative power. It may have been the religious and political center of the “Sanxingdui ancient theocracy kingdom.”

After the latest discovery of new sacrificial pits, more and more scholars believe that these cultural relics were buried by the people of the Sanxingdui kingdom, rather than by their enemies. Meanwhile, most researchers have acknowledged that these artifacts may have had been stored in the “temple.”

The Sanxingdui culture is deeply peculiar and mysterious, and this is why it is so charming and attractive. At present, Sanxingdui is awaiting further in-depth and detailed excavation and research.