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New archaeological discoveries probe mystery of Sanxingdui

Author  :  ZHOU HONGSHUANG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-08-20

The pottery incised with a dragon-and-phoenix pattern (left) unearthed from the Lianhe Site and a line drawing of its dragon-and-phoenix pattern (right) Photo: GUANGMING DAILY

Recently, the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute released its latest archaeological discoveries. From a site in Lianhe Village, about 8 kilometers south of the Sanxingdui Ruins in the city of Guanghan, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, archaeologists discovered rich remains dating back to Neolithic times and onwards, ranging through the Shang and Zhou (16th century–256 BCE), Qin and Han (221 BCE–220), Wei and Jin (220–420), Tang and Song (618–1279), and Ming and Qing (1368–1911) dynasties. Thousands of huikeng (a Chinese archaeological term literally meaning “ash pit,” but better translated as “refuse pit,” because it generally refers to the remains of pits which functioned as refuse areas during ancient times, with contents often used as criteria for site dating and chronology), tombs, remnants of kilns and other relics of various periods have been exposed, and a large number of pottery, porcelain and stoneware items have been excavated. The excavation is still in progress.

According to an expert from the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archeology Research Institute, the Lianhe Site reflects an uninterrupted history of regional development of almost 5,000 years, which is of great significance to the study of the sequence of ancient civilization in regional archaeology.

An uninterrupted history of 5,000 years

The Lianhe Site was discovered during the construction of the North Extension project of Tianfu Avenue. In 2019, after systematic and careful archaeological research of the construction area, the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archeology Research Institute found five ruins dating back from Neolithic times to the Zhou Dynasty, a Han Dynasty site, a Song Dynasty site, 7 tombs dating from the Han to the Song eras and 27 scattered ruins, covering more than 110,000 square meters.

“The five ruins dating from Neolithic times to the Zhou Dynasty and the Sanxingdui Ruins are all located in the Yazi River basin. There should be a close connection between them. These ruins are significant to the study of the political and economic systems of the capital city of the ancient Shu Kingdom,” said an expert from the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archeology Research Institute.

Rescue excavations began in October 2019. The whole area of the excavation will cover 7,000 square meters. By the end of June 2020, an area of 4,500 square meters had already been excavated. Experts believe that the site may contain important settlement ruins situated around the Sanxingdui ancient city site. This discovery was a prelude to the study of the surrounding area of Sanxingdui.

First “dragon and phoenix” pattern

The relics unearthed from the Lianhe Site bear many features of Sanxingdui culture. Among the excavated objects, a clay pig figurine quickly attracted the most public attention, as it seems to share an uncanny resemblance to a character from the Angry Birds mobile game. The discovery has left archaeologists amazed: “We have excavated clay pig figurines from the Sanxingdui Ruins before, but this one is surprisingly cute.”

Another rare treasure is pottery incised with a combination of dragon and phoenix patterns. It was discovered broken into pieces. After being pieced together, archaeologists found that it was a clay lid, at the center of which is a pattern of a crested bird standing erect. The edge of the lid is finely incised with a dragon surrounding the bird, which seems to be breathing fire. According to experts from the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archeology Research Institute, many pieces of bronzeware with patterns of birds were unearthed from the sacrificial huikeng of Sanxingdui, but this bird is probably a phoenix because it appears together with a dragon.

It is worth mentioning that the fictional dragon and phoenix were not paired together for a long time after their first individual appearances. It was not until the Shang Dynasty that the dragon and the phoenix began to show up in pairs, evidenced in jadeware exhibiting the dragon-phoenix design. The lid unearthed from the Lianhe Site is the earliest found pottery piece with the dragon-and-phoenix pattern discovered in China.

However, some experts pointed out that the fictional animal surrounding the phoenix may not be a dragon but a tiger, because on the animal’s back are some forked hooks, an element usually found in tiger motifs on ancient Chinese artifacts. In addition, the head of the animal is not a typical dragon’s head, and its tongue resembles that of the tigers carved into the artifacts of the ancient Shu Kingdom.

Daily life outside ancient capital

Study of the Sanxingdui Ruins reveals the structure and elements of the capital city of the ancient Shu Kingdom. However, archaeologists have little knowledge about life outside the capital city in ancient times. As a neighboring cluster of the Sanxingdui ancient city, the Lianhe Site provides key information about what it was like to live in the surrounding neighborhood of the capital city of the ancient Shu Kingdom.

From the Lianhe Site, archaeologists have found rich relics that reflect the first phase of Sanxingdui culture (the culture of the Sanxingdui Site is thought to be divided into three phases, which correspond to periods I–III of the site; the first phase belongs to the Baodun culture, a Neolithic culture dating back to around 4,500 years ago). The Lianhe Site mainly consists of huikeng, from which most of the excavations are sand-ware. A large number of gaobing dou (a type of long-legged food vessel), small flat-bottomed pots and lids of various shapes were unearthed and restored, suggesting that they were popular vessels at that time.

All the vessels discovered from the Neolithic remains are flat-bottom vessels. The unearthed stoneware involves stone axes, adzes and some microliths. Experts noted that the excavations from the Neolithic remains contain elements from a period earlier than the Baodun Culture. The unearthed vessels, either in material, color, or pattern, are quite different from those of the Baodun culture on the Chengdu Plain in Sichuan Province. They are more similar to the Neolithic culture found in the Jiangweicheng Site and Yinpanshan Site around the upper Min River in central Sichuan Province. These discoveries provide new material for the study of the history and culture of the Chengdu Plain.

 

This article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily.

Editor: Yu Hui

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