Secret face of China's lost civilisation

Archaeologists hail discovery of ancient culture as 'greatest find of the century'. David Keys reports
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The Independent Online
Chinese archaeologists have unearthed a previously unknown ancient civilisation, about 3,500 years old. This is the first discovery of ancient urban civilisation on this scale for more than a century.

They have found well over 1,000 jade and bronze items including some of the world's strangest sculptures, ET-style masks with eyes on stalks and heads with giant ears.

Archaeologists are stunned by the discovery and baffled as to the identity of the ancient people who created this glittering lost culture. Although the civilisation flourished in what is now western China, it does not appear to have been culturally or ethnically ancestral to modern mainstream Chinese culture. Instead, it may be distantly related to either the Tibeto- Burman tribes or the much less numerous Austronesian peoples (cousins to the Pacific Polynesians) who both still inhabit parts of western China.

Details have been emerging only over the past decade, following the discovery in 1986 and 1988, at Sanxingdui, in China's Sichuan province, of sacrificial pits filled with jade and bronze treasures. In-depth scientific examination and Chinese language publication of the material is still in progress, and China has only now allowed the major finds out of the country for the first time for a three-and-a-half-month exhibition at the British Museum from 13 September.

A leading authority on ancient China, Dr Jessica Rawson, who is organising the exhibition, regards the finds as "among the most important archaeological discoveries anywhere in the world this century".

"They shed a totally new light on the early development of civilisation in east Asia by revealing the existence of a sophisticated urban culture in an area where this had never been suspected before," she said.

Most of the finds - bronze heads and statues, ritual equipment and jade treasures - have been unearthed inside a massive ceremonial walled city, covering almost a square mile.

In its heyday - 3,600 to 3,100 years ago - the city, with its residential districts and major public buildings, probably had a population of between 10,000 and 20,000 and boasted four miles of enormous defensive ramparts. Made of 50 million cubic feet of rammed earth, they were 130ft wide, around 35ft high, and were topped by a brick wall and pierced by gateways.

It is likely that the metropolis was not only the capital of a substantial kingdom, but was also an important centre of religious pilgrimage.

Nearly all the bronze and jade treasures have been found in a series of deep sacrificial pits, next to what were probably temples, built on vast earthen platforms. The identity of the gods which were being offered these sacrifices is as great a mystery as the identity of the ancient people themselves. However, a detailed analysis of the finds so far suggests that this lost civilisation held elephants, birds of prey, and the concept of the tree in great reverence.

The biggest sacrificial pit, dating from 1100BC, contained 500 bronze, jade and stone treasures arranged in three layers. The top layer consisted exclusively of elephant tusks, while the bottom layer was made up of bronze birds and animals, small bronze animal face masks, small jade and stone implements, seashells, and fragments of bronze trees.

However, it was the middle layer which yielded the most spectacular items - 41 human-like heads, 15 human-like masks (including two with "telescopic" eyes on stalks), and many objects in bronze - a dozen ritual vessels, parts of several trees and a 5ft 7in statue of a man standing on a 3ft-pedestal, decorated with elephant images.

Archaeologists from the Sichuan Province Institute of Archaeology have now succeeded in piecing together one of these extraordinary bronze trees, complete with birds perched in its branches. It stands just over 13ft tall.

A second pit, dating from around 1250BC, has yielded 300 bronze, jade, stone, ceramic and gold treasures, together with 13 elephant tusks and over I00 cubic feet of burnt and broken animal bones.

Two other sacrificial pits have been found - one from 1600BC with just 40 small objects and another from 1450BC with 400 items, also relatively small.

It is perhaps significant that the volume and quality of the sacrificial material increases markedly over time, a trend which may suggest that not only did technology and fashion change over the centuries, but that the political power and wealth of Sanxingdui did also.

Indeed, the extraordinary increase in the size of the sacrifices and, almost certainly, the city's wealth, is likely to reflect the growth in the amount of territory controlled. It could even be that by around 1300BC, the city rulers had created a sizeable empire, all memory of which has been lost.

Archaeologists world-wide are now beginning to grapple with the mystery of the Chinese discovery - and its implications. Who were the people who ran this amazing civilisation? Were they kings or priests? And, most tantalising of all, are there other, major, lost civilisations still awaiting discovery?

Many of the major discoveries from Sanxingdui will be featured in London at the British Museum's Mysteries of Ancient China exhibition which will be open to the public from 13 September 1996 to 5 January 1997. The newly discovered civilisation is also featured in the pounds 25 exhibition catalogue which includes the first detailed, illustrated English language account of the finds.