News from the trenches: Diggers make significant discoveries at Sanxingdui

Archaeology is a profession that requires patience, persistence, and luck. In fact, a great deal of luck seems to be a prerequisite to make a great discovery; some of these involve kids and dogs. We are fortunate to know about the Lascaux caves because of a boy and his dog. A similar scenario led to the discovery of a new hominid fossil, Australopithecus sediba, near the Malapa cave in South Africa. The famous Chinese terra cotta warriors were found by farmers digging a well. The first artifacts at Sanxingdui were discovered by a farmer, as well.

Fairly recently, some eighty-five years after the initial discovery of the site, interesting new finds at Sanxingdui have been announced.

Sanxingdui

According to recent reports, archaeologists discovered a portion of the northern wall at Sanxingdui. The northern part of the wall would have run along the Jian River, according to this site map. (Image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Archaeologists have discovered what may be a section of the north wall at Sanxingdui. In addition, three tombs were found. A well preserved human skeleton was uncovered in one of these. It was dated to the Neolithic, well before the Sanxingdui site was occupied. As far as we know, human remains dating back to the actual Sanxingdui – Jinsha timeframe have only been discovered at Jinsha.

chinese vice premier

Vice Premier Liu Yongdan, who visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science on June 21 2015. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of State from United States)

The complete lack of known written sources at Sanxingdui and Jinsha continues to hamper our understanding of this amazing and sophisticated culture. In her recent visit to the exhibit China’s Lost Civilization: The Mysteries of Sanxingdui at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Vice Premier Mme. Liu Yongdan said this was indeed the biggest obstacle to our appreciation of the culture. She expressed hope that ongoing research would eventually uncover such information, a development which would bring Sanxingdui out of the shadows of prehistory and into the light of history. Discoveries like these can only strengthen China’s submission of the site as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Museum curator thanks his inspiration: a sixth-grade history teacher

As a museum curator, I have the pleasure of working with lots of volunteers. Most of them are students who are interested in archaeology, anthropology and museum careers. This time of the year, as graduation nears, there is an uptick in requests to come visit with me and ask for information and advice. “How did you become a museum curator?” is a question I hear often. “How long do you need to study?” is another one. One of the first things I bring up is that finding employment in anthropology is not easy. However, it is possible. Moreover, I ask my visitors to suggest one field of study where one would be guaranteed a job upon graduation. I can think of only very few.

Van den Bossche, Gaston

Gaston Van den Bossche, a man who made a difference with his students.

The first question – How does one become a museum curator? – has many answers, I am sure. In my case, there was one elementary school teacher who made a difference, now 44 years ago, to be exact. The sixth and final year in elementary school, my class had a teacher who loved history. He loved the city we lived in too, and it just so happened that city had a very long history.

As the year went by, he organized us into groups and assigned various projects. One involved painting a bird’s eye view of what our hometown would have looked like in the Middle Ages. That required research. It also entailed getting covered in paint as we worked on that assignment. Eventually two different canvases were finished. Much to our delight, they were hung in the entrance to the library. In another assignment, we were divided into five or six groups, each named after a Medieval guild. Some of us were the “coopers” or barrel makers, others the “tanners,” “bakers,” etc.  We were given assignments. To get the answers, we had to visit museums and churches, observe and ask questions. It made us interact with the past, and made this past come alive. It became part of what I got interested in. All because of a teacher.

As time went by, that sixth grade class went on to graduate. I found myself continuing down this path of “studying old things.” This took me from a university in Belgium to a U.S. institution in New Orleans, always pursuing the study of these “old things.” Over the years, that meant studying Roman and Greek history, some Egyptian history, and ultimately the art, archaeology, and history of American cultures, especially the Maya.

Photo by Robin Merrit

Photo by Robin Merrit

I have been very blessed to find a job, and to find myself working at a museum, where I now teach visitors, young, old and anyone in between. Sharing what you have learned about a culture that happens to be the topic of an exhibit is a joy. It is very rewarding to see the light come on in a child, when they “get it.” I love hearing visitors say to each other “I did not know that…” as they walk out of an exhibit. I am indebted to my old teacher for this sense of awe. It never left him. I hope it will never leave me.

Sadly, I recently received news that the man who sent me on my quest, and created that spark in me, had passed. Reason for sadness? For sure. Another reason to keep guiding people as much as possible, and maybe, just maybe, make a difference with one or two people? Absolutely. Next time you see a teacher at a reunion, and you know they made a difference in your life, say so. Give them a hug. They deserve it.

Sanxingdui: China’s lost civilization revises history

When you walk through the limited engagement collection of artifacts from China’s Sanxingdui (pronounced “sahn-shing-dwee”), or “three stars mound,” you feel an immediate connection to a looming unknown. Where these artifacts were discovered is clear enough, as is when they were created, but by whom, why and how are questions still puzzling archaeologists.

The artifacts, large, strange, and beautiful, with a verdant tarnish on the ancient bronze, depict human forms with large eyes, protruding pupils, and pointed ears. If these items were a direct imitation of the people who created them, they were an odd culture indeed.Bronze Head with Gold Mask copy

The relics were discovered in 1986 when a group of Chinese construction workers accidentally broke into the underground pit where the items had apparently been broken and dumped, yet another enigma. Were these items created with such meticulous effort sacrificed? If they were, then why? Archaeologists found a second pit nearby. Though research on artifacts from the Sanxingdui culture had continued since 1929, this monumental discovery was the find that caused historians to revise their ideas of the development of Chinese culture.

The items in both pits, Bronze Age masks, statues and charms, date back to about 1800 BC, but there is no information to reliably link Sanxingdui to the culture that existed contemporaneously in the Central Plain 1,200 miles to the northeast on the Yellow River, thought to be the birthplace of Chinese civilization. No writing was buried with the artifacts, and ancient texts make no mention of Sanxingdui.

More puzzling is the level of craftsmanship in the artifacts. The materials used to make the items reveals technology “that seems to arise out of nowhere,” to quote placard information. The Sanxingdui culture created huge figures like the eight-foot-tall statue that may depict a god or a shaman and the large masks that may have been attached to columns or walls.Standing Figure

Along with their size, some of the items were created using advanced techniques such as piece mold process casting and soldering, different from those used in the Central Plain, yet no foundries have been discovered. Even if these people had the knowledge to make the bronzes, where did they get the tools to manufacture them? Stranger still, after 500 years, the culture vanished for reasons unknown.

Archaeologists discovered a few answers in 2001 at Jinsha, where they unearthed artifacts depicting the same metallurgy and conception of the human form as those at Sanxingdui. The figures from Jinsha are much smaller, but they show the same standing or kneeling postures, tight clothing, almond-shaped eyes, braided hair, and hand positioning. Radiocarbon dating found these artifacts were made 500 years after the rise of Sanxingdui. Perhaps no more than a mass migration is to account for their abrupt disappearance, but then why did they leave?

Archaeologists have concluded that the Sanxingdui culture must have existed alongside other Bronze Age cultures, trading techniques and perhaps other information. Whereas historians believed China grew from a central birthplace, the revision of history tells a story of multiple centers contributing to the development of Chinese civilization.mask with protruding eyes

Limited Engagement: Come see the story for yourself at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui is now on exhibition through Sept. 7.

Behind-the-scenes Tour: Join us for “The Bronzes of Sanxingdui” Tuesday, May 19 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $37, members $27.

Distinguished Lecture: Dr. Liu Yang, curator of Chinese art at the Minneapolis Institute of the arts, will visit the HMNS to present “Unmasked: Mysteries of the Ancient Shu Kingdom and its Bronze Art” to shed further light on the artifacts from the Sanxingdui culture. Tuesday, June 2, 6:30 p.m.

“On the Trail” Children’s Heritage Excursion

iStock_000010269280webJust in time for the rodeo, little cowboys and cowgirls can learn how the American cowboy shares ways of life with the Bedouin and the Native American. These nomadic cultures are featured when the Archaeological Institute of America, Houston, presents a “Children’s Heritage Excursion” on Feb. 28 and March 1, 2015 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on the opening weekend of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

“Heritage Excursions” developed by the Archaeological Institute features tours to cultural sites around Houston. We wanted to include children! We devised this particular tour so that families can visit three cultures under one roof at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

pictures-of-Salukis

As you enter the Museum, Saluki dogs will greet you to acquaint you with an ancient breed beloved by the Bedouin. Hands-on activities for children will compare the nomadic life of the Bedouin people to the Native American tribe of the Comanche and the Texas cowboy – two of the nomadic cultures of Texas. All three groups share similar needs of nomadic people such as portability of their belongings, tent shelters as protection from the natural elements, a need to hunt for food, and a reliance on animals for transportation and companionship.iStock_000001796814web

Be sure to arrive early! Early arrivals will have the chance to see a team erect the Bedouin tent at 9:00 a.m., the covered wagon being brought into the Museum at 9:30 and then watch as a Native American group erects the tipi beginning around 10 a.m. Attendees will really have an understanding of how nomadic groups traveled and what was involved in the creation of encampments.

bedouin-tent3

Celebrate the rodeo at the Museum!

  • Tour a Bedouin tent outfitted by the Saudi Consulate, a Native American tipi, and a cowboy covered wagon from the American Cowboy Museum to discover shelters. 
  • Excavate at prepared archaeological digs to discover how archaeologists learn about the past
  • Participate in crafts and science activities
  • Visit ‘cultural corners’ to see demonstrations of horse gear, cowboy roping, and Native American arrow head construction and drumming.
  • Discover animals used by nomadic groups for hunting and protection. See a raptor and pet Saluki dogs, a ancient breed and a living antiquity

Raptor

Dr. Carolyn Willekes director of the event is a renowned expert on the archaeology of the horse, particularly the Arabian horse. Dr. Willekes is in charge of educational outreach at Spruce Meadows in Alberta, Canada, one of the world’s largest horse shows and also participates in educational activities at the Calgary Stampede, one of the world’s largest rodeos.

This event is generously underwritten by Aramco Services Company
with additional assistance from the Royal Consulate of Saudi Arabia and the
American Cowboy Museum.