History Files



The Lost Kingdom of the Sun

Mathaba News, 21 July 2007

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 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 report the find to the police. And that's how, in February 2001, the world learned about the relics of a mysterious 3,000-year-old Jinsha kingdom in the mountains of south-west China.

"Jinsha culture is unique, quite different from cultures in other parts of China, but is scarcely mentioned by Chinese historians," said Zhu Zhangyi, a veteran archaeologist in Sichuan and deputy-curator of the Jinsha Museum. "The harsh geography made it difficult for outsiders to enter the kingdom and so it was able to preserve its endemic culture."

Police have been able to recover most of the relics purloined from the construction site - about a hundred items in all, but no one can confidently claim that they have recovered everything.

In the past six years, the site has yielded up about 6,000 gold, jade, bronze and stone artefacts, tens of thousands of pottery items and also hundreds of elephant tusks.

Gold fever

Jinsha means 'gold sand'. True to its name, the site has 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. They made gold masks, gold headware and strange, horn-shaped objects in finely worked gold," said Sun Hua, an archaeologist from Beijing University.

Experts are 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 0.02 cm thick, the width of a piece of paper, 12.5 cm 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 seasons.

"It's just speculation. No one can say for sure what the pictures really mean," Zhu said, "but we do know that the ancient kingdom worshipped the Sun and birds."

Others have said that ancient Chinese may have believed that the Sun is 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 protection.

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 19.5 cm wide, 11 cm long, 0.04 cm 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 said the mask reminded them of people in their countries," said Zhao Bisong, a local Jinsha villager and now a security worker at the museum. "It's humbling to realise that our ancestors were able to make such vivid and striking things."

"The similarity in facial features provides clues about exchanges between the Shu Kingdom and areas in western Asia," Zhu said.

Elephant tusks

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 is for sure, they are from Asian elephants. Experts are analyzing the tusks to figure out how big the elephants were," Zhu said.

Elephant tusks are not easy to preserve. After excavation, there is the risk that exposure to the air could turn them into white powder.

"We have preserved some of the elephant tusks in organic silica gel for display purposes but most of them have been reburied where they were found - to protect them," said Zhu. "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 we don't know what kind of god the elephant tusks were offered to or how they were used in the rites," Zhu said.

No characters

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.

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; 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 excavated in Jinsha are eerily silent - they have no characters on them at all.

"It's very surprising because their culture was quite sophisticated and should have developed characters like other cultures across the world," Zhu said.

"Archaeologists guess they might have written characters on things that did not last, for example leaves or pieces of bark."

Relations with Sanxingdui

Jinsha shares many cultural similarities with Sanxingdui, or Three Star Mound, an important archaeological site about 50 km 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.

"Maybe the features on the masks were done so as to deliberately exaggerate their facial features," Zhu said.

Sanxingdui culture disappeared suddenly after about 500 years of existence and some have speculated it may have disappeared in 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 500 years before disappearing again.

The Jinsha site covers an area of about 5 square km.

"As far as we can make out after studying more than 2,000 tombs, the life expectancy of people there was about thirty or forty years," Zhusaid.

"Sanxingdui and Jinsha are consistent in cultural traits and they present a unique culture in the world, bronze culture endemic to Sichuan," said Sun. "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 where the ancient people offered sacrifices to the gods. After the rites, they apparently buried the utensils used during the ceremony in a pit. Each pit holds a minimum of ten to twenty utensils but some pits used by high-ranking officials or for particularly important gods have as many as 1,000 objects.

Jinsha culture stone figure

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 like Zhao Bisong believe 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," Zhao said.

Archaeologists are optimistic about more exciting finds.

"The gold masks and jade artefacts carry historical information quite different from cultures in other parts of China," said Professor Sun. "Only half of the sixteen layers of deposits have been excavated and further exploration will surely provide new surprises."

"Only about one tenth of the sacrificial area has been excavated, and the king's mausoleum, which can be expected to contain a rich store of relics, has not been located," said Zhu. "We really have no idea how many relics are lying underground waiting to be discovered."



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