San Xing Dui Archaeological Site

World Monuments Watch
Guang Han City, China

In 1984, following the discovery of a few bits of jade in an irrigation ditch, excavations near Guang Han City in Sichuan Province uncovered the earthen outer walls of an ancient city dating from the fifth to second millennium B.C. Many scholars believe that the site, now known as San Xing Dui or Three Stars Mound, was a prehistoric to early Shang period settlement, but others see the town as the center of an independent, local culture. The people who occupied San Xing Dui are not mentioned in Chinese writing, and as a result little is known about their civic life or religious practices. A 200-square-meter structure, probably used as a public gathering place, is the largest of the numerous buildings found at the site. The discovery that earned San Xing Dui international fame, however, was a series of sacrificial pits filled with precious objects: statuary, stone tools, gold and jades, bronze vessels, pottery, and charred animal bones. The fact that no human remains were found among the thousands of items indicates that the pits were not burials but rather ritual deposits from religious activity. Though San Xing Dui is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important Bronze Age sites in China, the survival of the city was threatened by pollution and encroaching development in the late twentieth century.

1996 World Monuments Watch

World Monuments Fund placed San Xing Dui Archaeological Site on its inaugural Watch in 1996, hoping to draw attention to the need to combat the effects of pollution, development, and harmful industrial activity in Sichuan province. In addition to man-made challenges, flooding had washed away large sections of the city’s earthen boundaries and eroded the archaeological layers. Watch listing brought increased attention for San Xing Dui from the national and international communities. Working with local advocates, WMF secured a grant for the preservation and management of the ancient city. By 1998, a dike had been built to protect San Xing Dui from flooding and a museum had been opened nearby to educate the public about the site and its history. WMF also assisted with funding for artifact conservation, site interpretation, and an English-language guide to the museum.

When local resident Yan Dao Cheng came across a few jade disks in the soil of his irrigation ditch, neither he nor anyone else could have predicted the scale or importance of his find. San Xing Dui, the ancient city that subsequent excavations uncovered, has transformed what is known about the history of the region as well as the entire field of Chinese archaeology. The density of construction at the center of the site indicates that San Xing Dui was a major city with significant wealth. Many scholars believe it was the political and religious capital of a culture that thrived in Sichuan province as long ago as the fifth millennium B.C., which encompassed other major sites such as Shiziao, Hengliangzi, and Dongshengli. The ritual pits at San Xing Dui have provided thousands of objects that have broadened the modern world’s understanding of Bronze Age China, including gold, jades, and a life-size bronze figure. These hoards provide evidence for what was valued and sacrificed by the people at San Xing Dui, and are helping to answer difficult questions about their religious beliefs, lifestyles, and culture.

Last updated: February 2019.

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