The Mystery of China’s Lost Civilization: Unusual Artifacts Come to the HMNS

Houston is the only city outside of Sanxingdui to host rare antiquities discovered in a remote area of China.

By Michael Hardy March 30, 2015 Published in the April 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Mask of human-animal composite creature, c. 1250–1100 BCE. Bronze. Excavated at Sanxingdui, Pit II.

In 1929, a peasant in the village of Sanxingdui, in China’s Sichuan Province, was repairing a sewage ditch behind his house when he discovered a long pit filled with peculiar-looking bronze, jade, ivory and stone artifacts. Although a few of these found their way into antique markets, the site was mostly ignored for the next 50 years while China went through a series of epochal upheavals: the second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the Communist revolution, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution—the latter a massive rejection of Chinese history and tradition that ensured the site remained unexplored until Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of the 1980s.

When Chinese archeologists finally began digging in 1986, they quickly discovered a second pit also filled with strange objects, which were soon dated to around 1800 BCE. The Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new exhibition, China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui, organized by the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, will include about 125 artifacts from the dig—none of which have ever traveled outside China. Thanks to the HMNS’s longstanding ties to the Bowers—for which it can thank recent exhibitions dedicated to the Silk Road and the Terracotta Warriors—Houston will be the only other city in the world to host these rare objects outside of Sanxingdui.

Unlike the Terracotta Warriors, which have been exhaustively studied, archeologists still know little about the Sanxingdui artifacts, which are made up of masks, pottery, jewelry, weapons and other objects whose purpose hasn’t yet been determined. Thanks in part to the absence of written inscriptions on any of the objects, scholars don’t even know why they were buried; no human remains have been found nearby, so it doesn’t appear that they were part of a funeral ceremony. Then there’s the matter of their appearance. “It’s not a technical term, but they are truly weird,” said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, the HMNS’s curator of anthropology. “They were burned and twisted into all kinds of forms before they were buried, and we have no idea why that is—it remains an enigma.” One piece represents a face so strange-looking that some have referred to it as the Alien Head. “It’s not like the Terracotta Warriors, where you can say, ‘These are generals, these are archers, these are foot soldiers,’” Van Tuerenhout said.

Even stranger is the fact that Sanxingdui was almost 1,000 miles from the center of Chinese civilization at the time, located near the present-day city of Nanjing on China’s east coast, yet the objects show extraordinary skill and sophistication. One artifact looks like a wheel with spokes (another mystery—it’s too flimsy to have served as an actual wheel) that was soldered together from six individually cast bronze pieces. Elsewhere, in what had been considered the more technically advanced parts of the country, metalworkers hadn’t yet learned how to solder. “It’s interesting for archeologists, because they always dismissed that part of China as a backwater, so nobody went out to dig there,” Van Tuerenhout said. “But if you don’t dig, you won’t find anything.”

China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui

Opens April 10. $20. Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Dr. 713-639-4629.

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