Little is known about the Shu civilisation that predominated in the area around Chengdu some 3,000 years ago. They left no written records and very few buildings to study.
But what has been discovered is a few of their treasure pits, filled with ivory and bronze vessels, as well as bold, angular masks that look more Aztec than Chinese in origin.
A few of the artefacts were unearthed by farmers in the 1920s at a site which had to wait until the 1980s for its first deep dig.
The latest trove to be revealed included an exquisite gold mask with huge eyes, a large beak-like nose, and a narrow slit for a mouth that would not look out of place on a robot.
Announcing the new 500-piece haul in March, the head of the dig Lei Yu said that the discoveries would help in understanding how the nation’s civilisation originated in a “a mixture of different cultures united”.
When the first of the bigger relics were pulled from the earth of Sanxingdui in the late 1980s, they upturned the established view that Chinese civilisation had emerged out of the Yellow River basin, opening up the possibility that Chinese culture might have multiple ancestral roots.
“People once had a widely-held view that central China was the cradle of ancient Chinese civilisation, and Sichuan [where the relics were found] was thought of as a marginal area,” commented Shi Jinsong, a researcher with the Institute of Archaeology at the China Academy of Social Sciences, to the China Daily. “But findings in Sanxingdui unveiled an early-stage regional state, which has changed our view of history.”
As longtime readers of WiC will know, Chinese archaeology has undergone a renaissance in recent years, supported by a government keen to demonstrate the nation’s long, unbroken history and ‘civilisational’ character.
Quite how the discoveries at Sanxingdui will be woven into that narrative is unclear, given how different they are to other finds that date back to a similar period.
Indeed, the masks are so strikingly different to other discoveries that some netizens have posited that they must be evidence of an alien visitation – similar to some of the theories that explain the existence of huge, perfectly-drawn animal shapes in the Nazca desert in southern Peru.
Superstition-hating scientists in China were quick to shut down such chat, with the country’s chief archaeologist Wang Wei even making an appearance on state television news to rebut the claims.
“There is no chance that Sanxingdui belongs to an alien civilisation,” he insisted.
But that didn’t stop netizens having fun with images of the treasures, especially the gold mask, which was transposed onto the faces of pandas, Japanese cartoon characters, and even Captain America.
Despite its great age, the mask looked pretty space-age wherever it was placed. “If it wasn’t made by aliens, who made it?” asked one netizen, adding that the wood fires of the time wouldn’t have been hot enough to melt gold.
Others simply stopped to comment on the beauty of these unique objects. “Chinese culture is richer than we thought,” one remarked.
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