Sunday, July 22, 2007

Jinsha excavation continues to yield relics

"The construction site in the western suburbs of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, looked much like any other. It all started when a bulldozer driver heard a scraping sound as his machine bit deep into the ground: he struck a collection of golden, jade and bronze objects. Workers and passersby snapped up the treasures and scurrying off. Those too late to get anything, disgruntled, report the find to the police. And that''s how, in February 2001, the world learned about the relics of a mysterious 3,000-year-old Jinsha kingdom in the mountains of southwest China.

"Jinsha culture is unique, quite different from cultures in other parts of China, but is scarcely mentioned by Chinese historians," said Zhu Zhangyi, a veteran archaeologist in Sichuan and deputy-curator of the Jinsha Museum. "The harsh geography made it difficult for outsiders to enter the kingdom and so it was able to preserve its endemic culture."

Police have been able to recover most of the relics purloined from the construction site -- about 100 items in all, but no one can confidently claim that they have recovered everything.

In the past six years, the site has yielded up about 6,000 gold, jade, bronze and stone artifacts, tens of thousands of pottery items and also hundreds of elephant tusks. Gold fever

Jinsha means ''gold sand''. True to its name, the site has proved extraordinarily rich in gold relics.

"Chinese people typically use gold as jewellery -- earrings, bracelets or necklaces -- but Jinsha people used gold for sacrificial purposes. They made gold masks, gold headware and strange, horn-shaped objects in finely worked gold," said Sun Hua, an archaeologist from Beijing University.

Two relics in particular showcase their technical prowess.

One is a round foil bearing images of the Sun and of four flying birds. The gold foil is only about 0.02 cm thick, the width of a piece of paper, 12.5 cm in diameter and 94 percent pure. Some people have speculated that the twelve lights around the Sun represent the twelve months and the four flying birds the four seasons. "It''s just speculation. No one can say for sure what the pictures really mean," Zhu said, "but we do know that the ancient kingdom worshipped the Sun and birds."

Others have said that ancient Chinese may have believed that the Sun is carried from east to west on the backs of birds. The sun and birds appear on many Jinsha relics. The piece, dubbed the Sun and the Immortal Birds, has since become a logo for Chinese cultural heritage protection.

Another important piece of gold ware is a gold mask, discovered in February 2007. The mask was probably worn by sorcerers who communicated with divine forces.

It is 19.5 cm wide, 11 cm long, 0.04 cm thick and weighs 46 grams.
Gold masks were not common in China at that time, but widely used in Egypt and the Middle East.