Edited from Mathaba News, 21 July 2007. Updated
29 June 2017
The construction site in the western suburbs of
Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, looked much like any other.
It all started when a bulldozer driver heard a
scraping sound as his machine bit deep into the ground: he'd struck
a collection of golden, jade, and bronze objects. Workers and
passers-by were snapping up the treasures and scurrying off. Those
too late to get anything were disgruntled, and they reported the
find to the police. And that's how, in February 2001, the world
learned about the relics of the mysterious three thousand year-old
Jinsha kingdom in the mountains of south-western China.
Zhu Zhangyi, a veteran archaeologist in Sichuan
and deputy curator of the Jinsha Museum, pointed out the fact that
Jinsha culture is unique, quite different from cultures in other
parts of China, but is scarcely mentioned by Chinese historians.
The harsh geography made it difficult for outsiders to enter the
kingdom and so it was able to preserve its endemic culture. That
isolation probably also contributed to its uniqueness in the first
Police were eventually able to recover most of the
relics that had been purloined from the construction site - about
a hundred items in all - but no one could confidently claim that
they had recovered everything.
In the six years since then, the site yielded
about six thousand gold, jade, bronze, and stone artefacts, tens
of thousands of pottery items, and also hundreds of elephant tusks.
Jinsha means 'gold sand'. True to its name, the
site proved extraordinarily rich in gold relics. Chinese people
typically use gold as jewellery - earrings, bracelets, or necklaces
- but Jinsha people used gold for sacrificial purposes. According
to Sun Hua, an archaeologist from Beijing University, they made
gold masks, gold headware, and strange, horn-shaped objects in
A gold face mask from the Jinsha collection, used for sacrificial
Experts were flabbergasted by the ancient people's
skill in making gold artefacts. Two relics in particular showcase
their technical prowess.
One is a round foil bearing images of the sun and
of four flying birds. The gold foil is only about 0.02cm thick,
the width of a piece of paper, 12.5cm in diameter, and 94 percent
pure. Some people have speculated that the twelve lights around the
sun represent the twelve months and the four flying birds the four
This was just speculation of course, as no one really
knew what the pictures meant. What was known is that the ancient
kingdom worshipped the sun and birds. Others have said that the
ancient Chinese may have believed that the sun was carried from
east to west on the backs of birds. The sun and birds appear on
many Jinsha relics. The piece, dubbed 'The Sun and the Immortal
Birds', has since become a logo for Chinese cultural heritage
Another important piece of goldware is a gold
mask, discovered in February 2007. The mask was probably worn
by sorcerers who communicated with divine forces. It is 19.5cm
wide, 11cm long, 0.04cm thick and weighs 46 grams.
Gold masks were not common in China at that time,
but were widely used in Egypt and the Middle East. Some foreign
visitors commented that the mask reminded them of people in
their countries, according to Zhao Bisong, a local Jinsha villager
and now a security worker at the museum. The similarity in facial
features provides clues about exchanges between the Shu kingdom
and areas in western Asia.
This jade battle-axe is a ritual instrument that symbolises the
emperor's political and military power
Sichuan is known for pandas rather than elephants
but, despite this, literally tons of elephant tusks have been extracted
from the site. Measuring 1.60 metres long on average, with one gigantic
1.85-metre tusk, the elephant tusks are an impressive sight.
One thing was for sure, the tusks were from Asian
elephants. Experts were analysing them to calculate the size of the
original owners. Elephant tusks are not easy to preserve. After
excavation, there is the risk that exposure to the atmosphere could
turn them into white powder.
Some of the elephant tusks were packed in organic
silica gel for display purposes but most of them had to be reburied
where they were found in order to protect them. Preserving elephant
tusks is a challenge for scientists the world over.
It is not clear what the elephant tusks were used
for. A drawing inscribed on a piece of goldware shows a man on his
knees carrying an elephant tusk on his back. The elephant tusks must
have been used in religious rituals, but what kind of god they were
offered to remains unknown, as does the question of how they were
used in the rites.
Portrait of a human head in bronze showing non-Chinese features
One of the greatest mysteries of Jinsha culture
is that it left no written characters, despite the fact that most
ancient cultures were already developing and using characters at
that time. The ancient Chinese used tortoise shells for divination
purposes. They would burn the tortoise shells and then predict the
future or tell people's fortunes by studying the rifts and patterns
on the backs of the shells - called 'oracle bones'.
Most oracle bones in the vast plain of China carried
inscriptions showing the date of the fortune-telling operation plus
the identities of the people who carried it out, or gave some clues
as to why divine forces were being consulted. But the oracle bones
that were excavated in Jinsha were eerily silent - they had no
characters on them at all.
This was a surprising find, because their culture
was quite sophisticated and should have developed characters just
like other cultures across the world. Archaeologists guessed that
they may have written characters on other objects instead, ones
which have not survived the passage of time such as, for example,
leaves or pieces of bark.
A three-legged pot for mixing liquors
Relations with Sanxingdui
Jinsha shares many cultural similarities with
Sanxingdui, or Three Star Mound, an important archaeological site
about 50km away.
For example, the Jinsha gold mask looks like the
bronze masks uncovered in Sanxingdui. The bronze masks in Sanxingdui
show facial features so different from local Chinese that some people
have joked that they must have been built by extraterrestrial beings.
Perhaps the features on the masks were crafted so as to deliberately
exaggerate their facial features.
Sanxingdui culture disappeared suddenly after about
five hundred years of existence, and some have speculated it may have
disappeared due to a flood. The discovery of Jinsha suggests that
Sanxingdui people may have moved to Jinsha and built another capital
there, where their culture lasted for another five hundred years before
The Jinsha site covers an area of about five square
kilometres. As far as archaeologists could make out after studying
more than two thousand tombs, the life expectancy of people there
was about thirty or forty years.
Sanxingdui and Jinsha are consistent in cultural
traits and present a unique culture in the world, a bronze age
culture which was endemic to Sichuan. The sites yielded rare stone
and bronze artefacts, including statues of human beings, gods, and
animals. They used so many prehistoric jade that some people
describe it as 'wild'.
The place revealed by the bulldozer's blade was
a ceremonial site at which the ancient people offered sacrifices
to the gods. After the rites, they apparently buried in a pit
those utensils which had been used during the ceremony. Each pit
held a minimum of ten to twenty utensils but some pits used by
high-ranking officials or for particularly important gods had as
many as a thousand objects.
The kneeling stone figures bear thin square
faces with prominent cheekbones, high straight noses, wide
mouths, and penetrated ears. All of them are naked, barefoot,
hands tied behind, legs bent on their knees and buttocks on
heels, with peculiar hair styles.
Locals such as Zhao Bisong believed it was the
ancestors' will that their secret was at last revealed to the world.
The area was previously farmland. If the bulldozer had not tumbled
on the biggest sacrificial pit, the site might have slept under
high-rises for decades or even centuries.
Archaeologists were optimistic about more exciting
finds. Professor Sun pointed out that the gold masks and jade
artefacts carried historical information which was quite different
from cultures in other parts of China. Only half of the sixteen
layers of deposits had been excavated by 2007, and further exploration
would surely provide new surprises.
Only about one tenth of the sacrificial area had
been touched by archaeologists by this time, and the king's mausoleum,
which could be expected to contain a rich store of relics, had not
yet been located. The experts really had no idea about how many
relics could be lying underground, waiting to be discovered.
Jinsha Museum, situated in Jinniu Avenue, Chengdu, China