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.
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.
A gold face mask from the Jinsha collection, used for sacrificial
Experts are flabbergasted by the ancient people's skill in
making gold artefacts. Two relics in particular showcase their
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
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
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."
This jade battle-axe is a ritual instrument that symbolises the
emperor's political and military power
"The similarity in facial features provides clues about
exchanges between the Shu Kingdom and areas in western Asia," Zhu
Sichuan is known for pandas rather than elephants but, despite
this, literally tons of elephant tusks have been extracted from the
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,"
Elephant tusks are not easy to preserve. After excavation, there
is the risk that exposure to the air could turn them into white
"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.
Portrait of a human head in bronze showing non-Chinese features
"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,"
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.
A three-legged pot for mixing liquors
"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
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.
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
"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
Jinsha Museum, situated in Jinniu Avenue, Chengdu, China