top of page
  • andrewsingerchina

#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 1, Issue 33

Today’s Issue is Part II of looking way back at the Early Bronze Age to examine some of the earliest archaeological evidence of civilizations that developed in what is now China. We looked at Yinxu (Anyang) in Henan Province in the last Issue. Sanxingdui in Southwestern China takes center stage below.

  • Sanxingdui (Southwestern China)

  • One More Thought (The World’s First Mint?)


Sanxingdui (Southwestern China)

Bronze Figure Excavated in 2021 (By Wxmarshall,

More than 3,000 years ago, Sanxingdui was out in the hinterlands. From the western reaches of the Yangzi River (Changjiang) far to the south, the water route to the area traveled a long, twisted, coiled, switch-backed course along several rivers north by northwest until finally arriving at the city.

Though there is some evidence that the populations of Sanxingdui and Yinxu (Anyang) in North Central China were not complete strangers, the region around Sanxingdui developed independently of far-away Shang China. Until its rediscovery in the early twentieth century, no one knew that this culture had existed so long ago.

Sanxingdui (Jay Xu Lecture Slide)

The city was roughly square and bordered by the Yazi (Duck, also Jian) River to the north and protected by city walls to the south, east, and west. The Mamu River ran through its center. Workshops, foundries, residential compounds, a palace, and burial area were all part of the city.

Sanxingdui was a seat of political and religious power for more than 500 years (circa 1650 – 1150 BC), a period of time that was roughly coterminous with the Yinxu culture. There is as yet no evidence of a formal writing system at Sanxingdui to compare with the oracle bones at Yinxu.

Gold Mask (private photo)

After decades of intermittent excavation, two sacrificial pits were excavated at Sanxingdui in 1986 and six more pits were discovered in 2019 and 2020. These eight sites are located in the southern part of the city and have yielded amazing finds. Bronze figures and headdresses as well as bronze trees, bells, and shells fill the pits. Figures are life size and miniature, squatting and standing. There is residue evidence of painting and textiles on some of the objects. Gold masks and gold and jade discs are complemented by thousands of cowrie shells and elephant tusks.

Bronze head (

In January and March, 2022 Society for Asian Art webinars, Jay Xu, Director of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, spoke on his research into deciphering the iconography of the objects unearthed at Sanxingdui. Since there are no discernible human remains in the pits, the working theory is that this ancient culture used these objects, many of which were first broken and then cast into the pits, as symbolic ritual and religious sacrifices.

Bronze standing figure (

A more than eight-foot tall, bronze male figure is one of the highlights of Sanxingdui. He stands proudly on a slab atop four ornately-carved legs that are themselves perched on a chunky pedestal. He wears a long, flowing gown and is barefoot.

An elaborate, two-tiered crown headdress with decorated eyes rests on his head. His ears are pierced. His arms are positioned such that his encircled fingers were originally grasping something quite large and most certainly important in offering. Prior to being cast into Pit 2, the figure was broken into two pieces.

(Jay Xu Lecture Slide)

There is such a variety of shapes of heads and headdresses on the bronze figures at Sanxingdui. Some headdresses are arched, pronged, flat, and animalistic. There are domed craniums and flat-tops. Representation of hair might be clipped or coiled or in pigtails. The Sanxingdui culture was into body piercings (at least in their sacrificial art). Many bronzes show evidence of multiple ear piercings as well as ornament holes in the backs of heads and under armpits.

(Jay Xu Lecture Slide)

This large, bronze sacred tree stands almost thirteen feet high. Before the state-of-the-art museum that now exists at the site was built, there was no room to put the two (broken) pieces of the tree together inside. Director Xu thus had the unique opportunity at that time to experience the tree being brought outside and erected in the open air to appreciate its full scope.

The tripod-legged tree rests on a circular base and contains three levels of branches with three branches on each level. On each branch sits a bird with a hooked beak and clipped wings atop a flower. A dragon with a gaping mouth and two horns rises ropelike from near the base and winds its way up toward the top of the tree. The back half of the dragon’s body no longer exists. The dragon has a small wing, and its claws are both open and clenched. A missing finial, likely a bird, would have been inserted at the top of the tree.

Sanxingdui Cultural Relics Protection and Restoration Hall


The absence at Sanxingdui of the thousands of oracle bones and human burials found at Yinxu is not the only distinction between the two cities. Chen Shen, Senior China Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, wrote the following in a 2002 exhibition book (Anyang and Sanxingdui: Unveiling the Mysteries of Ancient Chinese Civilizations):

The Sanxingdui assemblage is dominated by large bronze sculptures of human figures, as well as heads, masks, and decorative ornaments of animals and plants. At Anyang, weapons and vessels account for the majority of bronzes recovered. Anyang also produced a wide range of bronze objects for both daily use and ritual application, while bronzes from the [then] two Sanxingdui pits seem to be related only to local religious practices.”

Some Zun- and Lei-like bronze wine vessels have now been discovered at Sanxingdui, and these intriguingly point to the possibility of contact with the Chinese civilization further east.

(Jay Xu Lecture Slide)

More than 1,000 elephant tusks have been found spread among all eight sacrificial pits at Sanxingdui. These tusks, which are all from male Asian elephants, clearly held ritual importance for the Sanxingdui culture. Several of the bronze figures and objects are decorated with stylized and ritualized elephant patterns. For example, each of the four legs on the standing bronze figure depicts an elephant with trunk and tusks. In addition, the missing object that the figure’s hands were holding in offering appears as if it could have easily been a gigantic elephant tusk. Future research will hopefully shed more light on the symbolism of these ivory tusks and elephants for the ancient Sanxingdui culture.


One More Thought (The World’s First Mint?)

Guangzhang Spade Coins (image_9937_2 by H. Zhao)

The world’s oldest mint may have been found in central China. Dating from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty about 2,500 years ago (and several hundred years after the Shang Dynasty fell), the site in Guangzhang, Henan Province, was originally a bronze foundry producing ritual vessels, weapons, and more. It was subsequently repurposed to make money. Archaeologists have unearthed and dated fragments of clay cores, clay outer molds, and coins. “‘The earlier spade coins had a fragile, hollow socket, reminiscent of a metal shovel. This socket was transformed into a thin, flat piece in later spade coins, and over time, characters were applied to the coins to mark their denominations.’”


bottom of page