Unearthing Sanxingdui: The Hong Kong Palace Museum Exhibits Archaeological Discoveries in Sichuan

Two people are walking in front of a banner hung at the Hong Kong Palace Museum, promoting “Gazing at Sanxingdui: New Archaeological Discoveries in Sichuan.” Source: Juhui Kim

The Hong Kong Palace Museum showcased “Gazing at Sanxingdui: New Archaeological Discoveries in Sichuan” on Wednesday, 27th September, featuring 120 bronze, jade, and gold objects discovered at Sanxingdui.

This special exhibition, co-organized by the Hong Kong Palace Museum, the Sanxingdui Museum, and the Jinsha Site Museum, is the first major exhibition held outside Sichuan province, introducing the latest discoveries excavated at Sanxingdui.

The exhibition is divided into four chapters: art, urban life, belief systems, and origins and continuation of Sanxingdui. By going through the sections, the audience can explore and immerse in the sophisticated art, culture, and technology of time 2,600 to 4,500 years ago.

Unearthing Art and Belief in Sanxingdui

The largest gold mask (1300 – 1100 BCE) excavated at the Sanxingdui site is exhibited at the Hong Kong Palace Museum. Source: Juhui Kim

According to the press release by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, among the 120 displayed objects, 23 of them are grade-one national treasures, including the largest gold mask, bronze zun vessels, and a bronze mask with protruding pupils, indicating the sophisticated artistic and cultural achievements of Sanxingdui people.

The exhibited objects hold significance as they reveal the sophisticated technology and art that were available in the Shang dynasty. Besides, they reflect the lifestyle, beliefs, and culture of the Sanxingdui people who lived 3000 years ago.

A bronze mask with protruding pupils (1300 – 1100 BCE), found in Pit 2 of Sanxingdui site, a grade-one national treasure, is exhibited at the Hong Kong Palace Museum. Source: Juhui Kim

Going through the exhibition, the audience can notice a shared topic of “transformation” across objects found at Sanxingdui, which hints at the belief system that was prevalent among Sanxingdui people.

From the bronze mask with protruding pupils, scholars suggest that the mask’s human facial features and exaggerated ears and pupils indicate people’s belief in seeing and hearing divine power. Furthermore, given the prevalent shamanistic practice during the Shang dynasty, its human-deity mix look may imply the Sanxingdui people’s understanding of ancestral worship by reaching an in-between and transformative stage in connecting with gods.

Mythical creature (1300 – 1100 BCE) made of bronze, discovered at pit 8 of the Sanxingdui site, is displayed at the Hong Kong Palace Museum. Source: Juhui Kim

A similar motif of human-deity mix is also shown in the ‘Mythical creature.’ In the sculpture, a small human-looking figure stands on the head of an animal-like creature. The statue, speculated as a ritual object, combines the characteristics of humans and animals, visually presenting the motif of transformation and worship.

Furthermore, the bronze zun vessel’s complex surface design comprises different ways of perceiving mythical animals. Depending on the viewers, the design may look like an animal facing front or two animals facing each other. Scholars suggest that this transformational aspect may be used as a means to communicate with spirits.

Bronze zun vessels (1300 – 1100 BCE), found in pit 2 of the Sanxingdui site, grade-one national treasures, are exhibited at the Hong Kong Palace Museum. Source: Juhui Kim

Hence, while the design, form, and features of the objects differ, there is a common motif of transformation, worship, and the relationship between gods, animals, and humans.

These objects help the audience understand the Sanxingdui people’s devout attitude toward gods and the presence of a sophisticated belief system prevalent in Sanxingdui 3000 years ago.

Combining Multimedia Technology and Sanxingdui

To effectively guide the audience through the stories of the Sanxingdui, the exhibition is equipped with over ten immersive multimedia displays.

Henry Tang, Chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority Board, said at the opening ceremony of the exhibition, “Apart from showcasing the latest archaeological discoveries in Sichuan, ‘Gazing at Sanxingdui’ utilises new technologies and multimedia elements to enhance public understanding of the ancient Shu civilisation’s remarkable achievements and relationship with the origin of Chinese civilization.”

The exhibition showcases the utilization of multimedia and AI technology to reconstruct fragmented artifacts excavated at Sanxingdui. While the objects were originally separated into multiple parts for structural stability reasons, researchers from Sanxingdui have used the technology to restructure the artifacts as one object successfully.

In the exhibition, the audience can observe a life-size 3D projection of the digitally reconstructed figure: “a bronze figure with a zun vessel riding on a mythical creature.”

Reconstructed bronze figure with a zun-vessel riding on a mythical creature. Source: Juhui Kim

Diversity in Unity

Bronze masks (1300 – 1100 BCE) discovered at Sanxingdui are exhibited at the Hong Kong Palace Museum. Source: Juhui Kim

Throughout the exhibition, the common theme of “unity in diversity” can be found among Sanxingdui objects across time and space, highlighting the significance of Sanxingdui and its cultural influences on other regions.

Wang Yi, Deputy Director of the Sichuan Provincial Department of Culture and Tourism and Director of Sichuan Provincial Cultural Heritage Administration, said, “Their artistic styles and production techniques originated from the Yellow River and Yangtze River regions, which serve as important evidence of the ‘diversity in unity’ developmental pattern of Chinese civilisation and cultural exchanges between different regions.”

Grace Lee, a 20-year-old university student who visited the exhibition with her friends, said, “There were different masks in the exhibition. They look similar at first look, but when you look closer, you realize that they are all one and only special masks.”

Lee added, “It amazes me that new objects are still being discovered in Sichuan. Who knows, maybe other great treasures are waiting to be discovered.”

Gazing at Sanxingdui: New Archaeological Discoveries in Sichuan exhibition will run at Gallery 8 of the Hong Kong Palace Museum until 8th January 2024.

Featured Image: Juhui Kim

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