Chengdu Sanxingdui Museum – #1/5 Introduction

This museum had been on my bucket list of museums to visit, and I finally made it during the Covid period to the Sanxingdui Museum 三星堆博物馆 in Guanghan, Sichuan, about a two hours drive from Chengdu.

About Sanxingdui Civilisation

The history of the ruins, which is named Sanxingdui 三星堆, after the three large earthen mounds at the site, dates back to about 1,250 BC, which means it coincided with the Shang Dynasty (~1,600-1046 BC) in the Central Plains. Sanxingdui was a Bronze Age (~3,000-700 BC) civilisation that flourished in China’s fertile Sichuan Basin for several hundred years before mysteriously disappearing around 1,200-1,100 BC. The excavations can be divided into four main periods.

  • Sanxingdui Phase 1 三星堆遗址一期 (~4800-4000 BC), Neolithic Period, Ancient Shu was in Cancong 蠶叢 era; the settlement was around 5 km2, most of the relics found were pottery and simple stone and jade tools.
  • Sanxingdui Phase 2 三星堆遗址二期 (~4000-3600 BC), Neolithic Period, Ancient Shu was in the Boguan 柏灌Yufu 魚鳧 era, the early forms of rituals characteristics of Ancient Shu had started to form.
  • Sanxingdui Phase 3 三星堆遗址三期 (~3600-3200 BC), Early Bronze Age, Yufu 魚鳧 era – Shang Dynasty, city centre and walls formed, rituals matured, bronze items found among relics.
  • Sanxingdui Phase 4 三星堆遗址四期 (~3200-2600 BC), Bronze Age, Yufu 魚鳧Duyu 杜宇 era – Late Shang Dynasty, early Spring-Autumn States; Sacrificial pits appeared, sophisticated bronze relics appeared including swords.

After this came the Kaiming 开明氏 era, which had 13 lords before assimilated into the the Qin State in 316 BC.

Terrain model of the surrounding farmlands where the pits are discovered

Located in the lush farmlands outside the megacity of Chengdu, the world-class historical site has disgorged a dazzling trove of Bronze Age relics, most hauled from a series of gigantic burn pits (highlighted in the terrain model using yellow LEDs): strange sculptures of bug-eyed deities, colossal masks of hammered gold, gleaming jade ornaments, and life-size trees smelted from bronze that glitter with stylised flowers and mythical birds.

Timeline of Sanxingdui civilisation vs others

Much of what is known about Sanxingdui civilisation comes from two pits dating to around the time of its disappearance. The pits contained hundreds of jade, bronze, and ivory objects that had been ritually broken or burned and then buried, and their discovery in 1986 shook up the world of Chinese archaeology.

Graphical depiction of the layers of soil of the three periods of Sanxingdui civilisations

Archaeologists sifting these 3,000-year-old ruins know little about the mysterious people who made such sophisticated art. A few clues only deepen the enigma of Sanxingdui: Many of the 13,000 artefacts unearthed so far were intentionally torched and buried at a single ritual event.

Graphical representation of a ritual at one of the pit

Some experts believe the treasures are sacred objects yanked from the temples of a sprawling city-state and destroyed as a final goodbye to unreliable gods after a natural cataclysm—perhaps an earthquake or flood. All signs of Sanxingdui vanished soon thereafter. A few similar bronzes, excavated at a smaller site 30 miles away, were likely carried by refugees escaping a collapsed Sanxingdui.

Around the same time when the Sanxingdui settlement disappeared around 1200 BC, a new settlement of similar civilisation sprang up in Jinsha near modern Chengdu, some 30 miles from Sanxingdui. That’s another museum for another day.

The Museum Buildings

The museum is a sprawling place that is divided into three main buildings; the original museum 青铜馆 built in the 90s that housed the artefacts from Pit 1, a new museum 综合馆 that housed the highlights of the museums with a more dynamic story-telling style of modern exhibits, and a research and restoration lab 修复馆 that opened in Dec 2021 to showcase the work done in the excavations and restoration of the artefacts.

Comprehensive Pavillion 综合馆

The Comprehensive Pavilion was built to house the relics found in Pit 1 and 2, and opened its doors in 1997. It housed mainly gold, metal, jade, stone and pottery relics of all four periods of the Sanxingdui culture.

Pavilion ceiling featuring a multimedia introduction

When you walked into the pavilion, spend some time to watch the multimedia presentation on the roof, it gives you a very good introduction to the museum and how it came about.

Bronze Pavilion 青铜馆

If time permits do go to the Bronze Pavilion at the back of the compound. There’s shuttle buggies to bring you there, but they are very infrequent. So walk over to see the bronze figures and masks that were discovered in the pits as well as nearby archaeological excavations, like Locus Moon Bay 月亮湾小城, 二里头, etc.

Sanxingdui Cultural Relics Protection and Restoration Hall 三星堆文物保护与修复馆

And the third pavilion is the recently opened Sanxingdui Cultural Relics Protection and Restoration Hall 三星堆文物保护与修复馆, which is a working laboratory and restoration workshop for relics unearthed in the pits.

Replicas statues in the garden

In the sprawling garden outside the pavilions, you will find yourself up close to the relics in the forms of replicas and blown-up statues of you to take a selfie with. But the moment you step on the grass, the groundkeepers will start to ask to get off. I guess with the massive tourist numbers, the grass could not keep up.

Replication of the Sacrificial Altar

Also in the compound is a replication of the sacrificial alter and a life size bronze statue of the Priest-King on the main altar. An amphitheatre in the form of a bagua.

A Sanxingdui Sacrificial Rite reproduced in Chinese New Year 2023

While the museums are great places to visit during a wet day, the complex covering the different museums has no covered walkways between the museums and the new visitor centre. Do avoid the tourist season (Spring break and Labour Day) and the wet season (winter).

The Future of Sanxingdui Museum

In Mar 2022, a new plan to build a brand new Sanxingdui Museum was revealed.

The new building, built by China State Construction and designed by architects from China Southwest Architecture’s international team, will have a total floor area of approximately 55,000 square meters – five times the size of the museum’s current buildings. It has an investment outlay of approximately 1.43 billion yuan (about $224.7 million). The construction project has two parts: the main area and the exhibition area. The exhibition area is expected to be completed in October 2023. 

Sanxingdui Museum Series

  1. Introduction
  2. The Capital of Ancient Shu
  3. The Space Man and the Magic Tree
  4. Where it all started
  5. Restoration

Visitor Information : Museum has an entrance fee, so remember to either buy the ticket in their WeChat mini-app or get the ticket at the door. Do not buy the tickets from tourist sites online, they have not authorised anyone to sell those tickets. You will need a photo identification so bring your passport or driving license.

Museums are closed on Monday everywhere in China. Opening time for Sanxingdui Museum is 8am – 6.30pm. Carpark is available on site if you are driving. The entire place will take about 3-4 hours depending how in depth do you want to experience the place.

Sanxingdui Museum 三星堆博物馆
China, Si Chuan Sheng, De Yang Shi, Guang Han Shi, 丰富南兴镇真武村
Tel +86 838 551 0399

Visited Dec 2021

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