When the mysterious people of China’s Sanxingdui packed up and moved away 3,000 years ago, they left behind no written language and no indication of who they were, where they were going or why.
What they did leave was a gigantic cache of intricately fabricated, larger-than-life bronze art works — each created at a time during which historians doubted technology even existed to make a bronze on such a grand scale.
They also left several dozen elephant tusks, in an area where elephants were not believed to have been introduced yet.
For whatever reason these objects were made and then discarded, they themselves are moving now, just as their creators did three millennia ago, and will go on display Sunday at Southern California’s Bowers Museum, the first stop on a rare U.S. tour.
“China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui” includes more than 100 ancient pieces, some never seen outside China. The exhibit will remain at the Bowers until March 15, after which they will move to Houston’s Museum of Natural Science.
“You look at these figures and they’re really unworldly,” said the museum’s president, Peter Keller, as he stood in the shadow of an 8-foot-tall statue of a man in bare feet, flowing robe and elaborate headdress.
Keller was waiting inside the museum for workers to uncrate a 125-pound companion piece — a floppy-eared, bug-eyed bronze “mask” about the size of a sofa.
“China is full of mysteries, but to me this is China’s greatest mystery,” Keller continued as he gazed at the mask that contained a smile as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s. “Who were these people and where did they go?
That’s a mystery that’s been bugging archaeologists since Chinese bricklayers stumbled across the treasures in 1986, said Suzanne Cahill, an authority on ancient Chinese civilizations and the exhibition’s curator.
“Wow, 1200 B.C. people are doing stuff like that and we think we’re so technically evolved,” she said. “It’s kind of humbling, actually.”
Although there is evidence of bronze works at that time in China’s Central Plain, some 750 miles away, none come close to being this elaborate.