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The Lost Kingdom of the Sun

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 place.

Police were eventually able to recover most of the relics which 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.

Gold fever

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 finely-worked gold.

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 0.02 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.

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 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 19.5cm 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 Near 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.

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 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.

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. 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 which 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.

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 disappearing again.

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.

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 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.



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