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.

Ancient Ukraine: The Middle and Late Bronze Age

In my last blog on Ukraine, I discussed the Bronze age as defined by archaeologists and focused on the Early Bronze Age as it pertained to the Ukraine. Today I focus on the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. You can read my previous blog here.

The Middle Bronze Age: the Catacomb culture (2800 – 2500 BC)
The origins of the Catacomb cultures go back to 2800 – 2700 BC. The earliest Catacomb culture graves are located in the steppes north of the northern Caucasus and in the Don valley. Over a period of two to three centuries, the Catacomb culture spread west throughout the entire Pontic region, as far as the mouth of the Danube River.

The Catacomb culture is known for its sophisticated bronze weapons, tools and ornaments. There are great similarities in material culture between the area in the northern Caucasus and the steppes. These include bronze pins and medallions

Examples of bronze weapons, Catacomb culture (2800 – 2500 BC)

Wagon burials continued in the Catacomb region for exceptional people. In the Ingul valley, west of the Dnieper, as well as in the steppes north of the Caucasus, some Catacomb graves contained skeletons with clay death masks applied to the skull.

The Catacomb economy emphasized pastoralism.  One grave near Tsa-Tsa, south of the Volga, contained no less than forty horse skulls, placed in two rows (Anthony 2007:325).  This presence underscores the importance of the horse at that time. We might also be looking at a funeral feast, where the forty horses may have yielded about 8,000 kg of meat, enough to provide 4,000 individuals with 2kg of horsemeat each. Such a culinary peculiarity is much frowned upon on these shores today, but not so much in other parts of the world, where horsemeat is still considered a delicacy. 

The Late Bronze Age in Ukraine: the Srubnaya culture (1800 – 1200 BC)
The Srubnaya culture or timber-grave culture was present in an areaextending from the Ural Mountains in the east to the Dnieper River in the West. There is good evidence that the Srubnaya people were participants in a trade network extending beyond their own territory. The Late Bronze Age saw a tremendous increase in trade throughout the Eurasian steppes. As one of the archaeologists working in the area put it:

“The Late Bronze Age (LBA) was a period of unprecedented intercultural expansion and trade in the Eurasian steppes. Rich copper deposits in the steppe zone were mined more intensively than before. Ornate bronze weapons and ornaments created by steppe metal smiths were adopted from China to Eastern Europe. Chariots diffused through the steppes to China, the Near East and Europe.

Settlements became much more substantial and archaeologically visible, particularly in the northern steppes. For the first time, a chain of related cultures with similar economies and ritual practices extended from the Carpathians to the Tien Shan.” 

 Bronze sword (10th – 8th century BC), engraved with pictograms (seen in detail on the right).

There are objects in the exhibit that point to ideas, perhaps even objects reaching Ukrainian territory all the way from the Far East. Visitors can see a bronze sword, dating to the 10th to 8th century BC, engraved with pictograms. These are similar to pictogramscreated in Zhou Period China during the eighth to third centuries BC. 

What we might have on display is material evidence of the Silk Road that connected east and west, a series of trade routes that would have taken people through the Tien Shan mountain passes. The knowledge of using pictograms may have taken this route from east to west. One wonders if perhaps the sword itself traveled that route.

The Bronze Age in Ukraine was a period of major changes, both in terms of environment, as well as technological breakthroughs. People became more and more connected to a wider world, one that brought new ideas as well as greater dangers. This trend will continue into the Iron Age, a topic for the next blog.

Interested in learning more? Make sure to check out our new exhibition Ancient Ukraine, now open.


Anthony, D.
2007 The Horse, the Wheel and Language. How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Shislina, N.
2001 Eurasian Steppe Nomad. In Encyclopedia of Prehistory: Europe, Vol. 4. Edited by P.N. Peregrine and M. Ember, pp. 1240138. Human Relations Area File, Inc.

Ancient Ukraine: The Bronze Age

In my previous blog on the Ukraine exhibit, I wrote about the Trypilian culture. In this second installment, we will start by defining the Bronze Age, discuss the term “horizon” as it is used by archaeologists today and then focus on the Early Bronze Age developments in Ukraine. I will follow this up with a post next week about the Middle and Late Bronze Age periods in Ukraine.

First, a word of caution to the reader: since we are dealing with Ukraine’s prehistoric past, our understanding of what occurred is based on archaeology.  This means that the story of Bronze Age Ukraine is told in broad strokes. Prehistoric archaeological remains do not easily permit to identify individual cultures. We do not know what names people gave to their settlements. Instead, we make do with modern place names; we also use more abstract terms such as “horizon” rather than “culture” when we cannot identify these cultures. Moreover, our understanding of the chronological framework is not as refined as it is for later periods. However, this is what we have to work with. With that in mind, let’s visit the Bronze Age.

The Bronze Age as a concept.
The concept of the Bronze Age, and its position in a chronological sequence known as the Three Age System was developed by an early 19th century Danish scholar, Christian Jürgensen Thomsen.

Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, who developed the Three Age System.
(National Museum of Denmark, 1849)

Thomsen’s elementary division has stood the test of time and has been modified and elaborated upon over the last century and a half. We are the beneficiaries of this extensive research.  In particular, we have a pretty good understanding of Bronze Age cultures that existed in Western Europe. Over the last few decades, our knowledge of East European Bronze Age cultures has improved as well.
General traits of Bronze Age material culture

Aside from the appearance of bronze as the primary medium from which to make tools, there are several additional trends that characterize the Bronze Age:

• In the Old World, full-fledged phonetic writing systems appear in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

• In eastern Europe, burial mounds, or kurgans, appear, containing multiple internments.

• There is evidence of signs of territory, such as long landscape divisions and evidence for status, such as in grave goods.

• True weapons (both offensive and defensive) appear in the material record. These include the famous ceremonial dirks found in Western Europe, as well as shields.

Ceremonial giant bronze dirk. Found in France, 1500–1300 BC

Occasionally archaeologists come across objects that defy identification. When such items are discovered, we are acutely reminded of the absence of written documentation that could help us.

Climate change and the Bronze Age
Worldwide climate change starting around 3500 BC and continuing throughout the next millennium and a half resulted in a cooler and significantly drier climate (Anthony 2007:300, 389). Steppes dried and expanded. These developments affected the Trypilians, as well as those that immediately followed them. People were forced to move their animals more frequently to keep them fed. Wagons and horseback riding facilitated a more mobile form of pastoralism, one in which one could keep moving indefinitely (Anthony 2007:300).

The Yamna (or Yamnaya) Horizon (Early Bronze Age)
More than a century ago, archaeologists identified a sequence of different types of burial modes, starting with the so-called Pit-graves (Yamnaya). These were followed by the Catacomb-graves (Katakombnaya) and eventually the timber-graves (Srubnaya) (Anthony 2007:306).  Contemporary scholars continue to use this terminology.

The Yamna horizon is dated to the Early Bronze Age, the Catacomb phase is seen as belonging to the Middle Bronze Age and Srubnaya and Andronovo settlements were occupied in the Late Bronze Age.
The territory in which the Yamna graves were found extends from the Terek River in the Caucasus, and the maritime areas by the Azov Sea and the Crimea, to the Volga, Upper Don and Kiev on the Dnieper River in the north (Shislina, 2001: 124).

Map showing the extent of the Yamnaya horizon and other contemporaneous cultures in Europe.

Notice that archaeologists use the term “horizon” rather than culture to refer to this phenomenon. The term horizon is neutral about the cultural identity of the people who made these graves. Horizon is defined as “a style or fashion in material culture that is rapidly accepted by and superimposed on local cultures across a wide area” (Anthony 2007: 307).

“Rapid” is an apt description in this case. The Yamnaya people were very mobile. Wheeled vehicles probably pre-date the Yamna horizon by several centuries. However, it was during the Early Bronze Age that this technology blossoms and starts to get used more widely (Anthony 2007:312). These early wagons were cumbersome, probably pulled by oxen, and used primarily to haul around supplies and material possessions (Anthony 2007:302, 461). People themselves rode horses to stay with the herds.

The earliest remains in Eastern Europe of a wheeled cart were found in the “Storozhova mohyla” kurgan near Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. This burial mound is associated with the Yamna horizon. Race cars they were not, but they did permit people to be much more mobile than ever before.

Around 3300 BC, they are moving west across the Pontic-Caspian steppes. After a pause of about two centuries, their trek westward continues, taking them into the Danube valley and into the Carpathian basin during the early Bronze Age (Antony 2007: 305).  A feature closely associated with this migration is the burial mound, or kurgan. Thousands of these have been found in the region. By 2800 – 2600 BC, their migrations bring them into the eastern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and into territory of the people who make Corded Ware (Anthony 2007: 306, 367-368).

The Yamnaya people placed a mound on top of their grave pits.  The deceased was laid to rest in a supine position with the legs pulled up.  Often, ochre was sprinkled on the floor of the graves, near the feet of the deceased (Antony 2007: 304). They primarily left pottery and bronze artifacts as gifts for the deceased (Shislina, 2011: 124).  Occasionally polished stone objects were included as well.

Burial goods are excellent indicators of growing social stratification. Some graves contained greater wealth than others. By this time, some people must have been wealthier than others in life (Anthony 2007: 303).

Interested in learning more? Make sure to check out our new exhibition Ancient Ukraine, now open.


Anthony, D.
2007 The Horse, the Wheel and Language. How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped  the Modern World. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Shislina, N.
2001 Eurasian Steppe Nomad. In Encyclopedia of Prehistory: Europe, Vol. 4. Edited by P.N. Peregrine and M. Ember, pp. 124-138. Human Relations Area File, Inc.

New Exhibit Now Open! Six Thousand Years of Ukrainian History

Today’s blog post is brought to you by one of our amazing volunteers, Gail Larsen Peterkin, Ph.D. Her article is about our newest exhibition, Ancient Ukraine, now open! See artifacts from the last six thousand years.

Ancient Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations, which opens today, includes 166 objects from the Museum of National Cultural Heritage PlaTar. The PlaTar Collection began in the 1990s, when two wealthy Ukrainian businessmen, Sergei Platonov and Sergei Taruta, noticed the large number of Ukrainian antiquities offered for sale on the open market. They resolved to purchase as many of these artifacts as possible, to preserve them in Ukraine and on behalf of the Ukrainian people. After Platonov’s death, his son Nikolai continued his efforts. The trio amassed the largest private collection in Ukraine, now numbering over 15,000 artifacts. The collection was named the PlaTar Collection, after Platonov and Taruta.

The enigmatic Trypillian culture is especially well represented in the collection—apropos, because over 2,000 sites are known from Ukraine! The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture occupied parts of Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, during the Neolithic, Eneolithic, and Chalcolithic (Copper Age) periods, approximately 5400–2750 BCE. The Trypillians were agricultural; they grew crops, raised livestock, especially cattle, and perhaps even kept bees! They lived in large settlements of single- and double-story buildings. One of their cities, Talyanki, had a population of 25,000—earlier and larger than Sumer! Oddly, the Trypilians burned their settlements and moved every sixty to eighty years. Copper was present in the later stages of Trypilian culture. The entire culture vanished at the dawn of the Bronze Age.

Zoomorphic Statuette with Wheels

Trypilian pottery is spectacular, with vividly painted ceramic vessels in all shapes and sizes. Some of the pottery has markings that a few scholars interpret as “proto-writing;” unfortunately, we will have to reserve judgment, as none of these pieces are included in the current exhibition. There are, however, dual-cupped, “binocular” vessels and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. Stylized female figures suggest the existence of a Goddess cult and an emphasis on female fertility, while a wheeled ceramic bull with prominent horns might represent just the opposite—the bull is a traditional symbol of virility. (Then again, maybe it was just a pull toy …) The Trypilians even made clay models of buildings. Although the ones with horns might be temples, they also reproduced the interior of a house, complete with an oven and storage jars!

Binocular-Form Vessel

Beginning in the Bronze Age, many of the artifacts on display were manufactured elsewhere and arrived in Ukraine as luxury imports. Delicate repoussé goldwork first appeared in the Iron Age; the exhibit features an iron sword, with a gold hilt festooned with feline heads. Around this time, Greek writers like Herodotus began to write about the nomadic tribes they encountered on the Eurasian steppes—the Cimmerians, the Scythians, and the Sarmatians. These tribes spoke Indo-Iranian languages and originated further to the east (hint: remember the Silk Road and Central Asia?). The Scythians eventually settled down and established the Scythian kingdom, reaching the height of their power and influence in the fourth century BCE.


Many of the material remains recovered from Scythian sites are understandably small, portable, and metallic (bronze, silver, and gold), reflecting their nomadic roots. Jewelry and objects of personal décor were elaborate and finely worked, and they often have Classical Greek, Roman, and Persian designs. This so-called “Scythian gold” was produced from the seventh through the third centuries BCE. Peter the Great was one of the great early collectors of Scythian and Siberian gold, and The Hermitage in St. Petersburg houses many of his most spectacular pieces—thus giving HMNS a potential double dose of Scythian gold this summer!

Eagle-Shaped Plaque

Roman influence persisted after the demise of the Scythian kingdom (around 100 BCE), until Rome itself fell to “barbarians” in 476 CE. Around this time, the Slavic people first moved into Ukraine, filling the Scythian void. Under Byzantine rule, brothers Cyril and Methodius brought Orthodox Christianity to Ukraine, along with the Cyrillic alphabet. The Kyivan Rus’, centered on the city of Kiev, was founded in 882, and Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Slavic empire in the tenth century. During its “golden age” under the leadership of Vladimir the Great (980-1013) and his son Yaroslav the Wise (1019-1054), the Kyivan Rus’ was the largest state in Europe. Its rulers regularly intermarried with European royalty.

Wine Jug (Oenochoe)

The shift from Roman paganism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity is immortalized in several of the objects on display. Although the exhibit includes many Roman-style artifacts, from lamps to jewelry, one glass vessel stands out. It is an exquisite blue, blown-glass wine jug, decorated with ethereal haloed figures. As the focus shifted from Rome to the eastern empire, formal Orthodox Christian iconography emerged and is evident in the later artifacts on display: a chalice; a reliquary; a pendant bearing the image of St. George; an icon of Christ emerging from the tomb; and, dating from the twelfth to thirteenth century CE, an elaborate gold cross depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist.


The amazing PlaTar Collection, showcased in Ancient Ukraine, covers at least six thousand years of Ukrainian history! The organizers hope the exhibit will introduce the U.S. to the wonders of Ukraine, from the little-known Neolithic Trypilian culture through the medieval Kyivan Rus’—a remarkable historic foundation for the modern nation-state of Ukraine.

Want to learn more about Ukraine and their history? Check out Dirk’s blog and see the exhibition for yourself.


Aruz, Joan, Ann Farkas, Andrei Alekseev, and Elena Korolkova, eds. The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes. The State Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, and the Archaeological Museum, Ufa. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2000.

Soltes, Ori Z. The Glory of Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations. Bethesda, The Museum of the National Cultural Heritage PlaTar and Foundation for International Arts and Education, 2010.