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22 July 2007
The mysterious Jinsha culture

The construction site in the western suburbs of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province (China), 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. 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.
     Experts are flabbergasted by the ancient people's skill in making gold artefacts. 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. 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.
     Literally tons of elephant tusks have been extracted from the site. "One thing is for sure, they are from Asian elephants. Experts are analyzing the tusks to figure out how big the elephants were," Zhu said. "We have preserved some of the elephant tusks in organic silica gel for display purposes but most of them have been reburied where they were found - to protect them," said Zhu. It is not clear what the elephant tusks were used for. A drawing inscribed on a piece of gold ware shows a man on his knees carrying an elephant tusk on his back. "The elephant tusks must have been used in religious rituals, but we don't know how they were used in the rites," Zhu said.
     One of the greatest mysteries of Jinsha culture is that it left no written characters, despite the fact that most ancient cultures were already developing and using characters at that time. "Archaeologists guess they might have written characters on things that did not last, for example leaves or pieces of bark." Zhu said.
     The Jinsha site covers an area of about five square kilometers. "As far as we can make out after studying more than 2,000 tombs, the life expectancy of people there was about 30 or 40 years," Zhu said. "The place revealed by the bulldozer's blade was a ceremonial site where the ancient people offered sacrifices to the gods. After the rites, they apparently buried the utensils used during the ceremony in a pit. Each pit holds a minimum of ten to 20 utensils but some pits used by high-ranking officials or for particularly important gods have as many as 1,000 objects," he added. "The finings unearthed at the site caryy historical information quite different from cultures in other parts of China," said Professor Sun, "Only half of the 16 layers of deposits have been excavated and further exploration will surely provide new surprises."

Source: People's Daily Online (21 July 2007)

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