When the mysterious people of China’s Sanxingdui packed up and moved away 3,000 years ago, they left behind no written language and no indication of who they were, where they were going or why.
What they did leave was a gigantic cache of intricately fabricated, larger-than-life bronze art works — each created at a time during which historians doubted technology even existed to make a bronze on such a grand scale.
They also left several dozen elephant tusks, in an area where elephants were not believed to have been introduced yet.
For whatever reason these objects were made and then discarded, they themselves are moving now, just as their creators did three millennia ago, and will go on display Sunday at Southern California’s Bowers Museum, the first stop on a rare U.S. tour.
“China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui” includes more than 100 ancient pieces, some never seen outside China. The exhibit will remain at the Bowers until March 15, after which they will move to Houston’s Museum of Natural Science.
“You look at these figures and they’re really unworldly,” said the museum’s president, Peter Keller, as he stood in the shadow of an 8-foot-tall statue of a man in bare feet, flowing robe and elaborate headdress.
Keller was waiting inside the museum for workers to uncrate a 125-pound companion piece — a floppy-eared, bug-eyed bronze “mask” about the size of a sofa.
“China is full of mysteries, but to me this is China’s greatest mystery,” Keller continued as he gazed at the mask that contained a smile as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s. “Who were these people and where did they go?
That’s a mystery that’s been bugging archaeologists since Chinese bricklayers stumbled across the treasures in 1986, said Suzanne Cahill, an authority on ancient Chinese civilizations and the exhibition’s curator.
“Wow, 1200 B.C. people are doing stuff like that and we think we’re so technically evolved,” she said. “It’s kind of humbling, actually.”
Although there is evidence of bronze works at that time in China’s Central Plain, some 750 miles away, none come close to being this elaborate.
The Chinese first discovered they were on to something special in 1926 when a farmer uncovered a few relics in Sanxingdui, on the outskirts of Sichuan province’s capital city of Chengdu.
But it wasn’t until 1986 that the country was awed by a find the Chinese would label one of the great wonders of the world.
That was when workers began pulling the gigantic head, now named “Mask with Protruding Eyes,” out of the ground, along with the really tall guy who has since been nicknamed “Standing Figure.”
Fifteen years later, more relics were found in another pit 25 miles away in Jinsha. Scholars suspect they were made by the same people, who also mysteriously abandoned that area.
Little has subsequently been learned about these people, other than they abruptly vanished about 350 years after making the bronzes. “They certainly don’t look Chinese,” Cahill said of the bronze images of people. “They barely even look human.”
That, she added, has led some people to say, “Oh, my gosh, they must have been made by aliens.”
She doubts that, noting the tall statute has a pair of hands that appear to have been shaped specifically to hold one of the 80 elephant tusks found buried with it. More likely it was modeled after a nobleman, she believes, or was created as a deity.
But then there’s the question of how the Asian elephants whose tusks were found in the pit got there.
Elephants of the time were thought to be a thousand or so miles away in Vietnam or the far reaches of southwest China. The find indicates the Sanxingdui people may have lived on a heretofore unknown trade route.
Although Cahill acknowledged that many questions about the works may never be answered, she’s excited about this rare opportunity for people in the United States to see them and the artistic talents they represent.
“My first reaction when I saw this stuff was I was just struck dumb,” says the scholar who has previously seen the works in China and, during a rare earlier trip outside the country, in Paris.
“Now I belong to the ‘Gee whiz’ school of art history,” she said with a laugh. “They’re just so beautiful, so striking. And so weird.”