April 23, 2001
Ancient Chinese art from a forgotten region at SAM
by Deborah Stone
On July 18, 1986, an important archeological discovery was accidentally unearthed near Sanxingdui, a small village about 20 miles northeast of Chengdu, in the Sichuan Province of China.
Workers from a local brickyard were digging clay to make bricks at a site near the Min River when they came upon a dozen jade artifacts. The workers reported their find to some archaeologists who had finished their season of excavation at a nearby dig several months earlier.
Soon after the archaeologists began excavations at the new site, they exposed a rectangular pit full of more than 400 spectacular artifacts, including elephant tusks, stone and jade tools, pottery vessels, weapons and other implements. All had been sealed under a filling of pounded earth.
A month later, the brickyard workers discovered another pit and among the finds were thousands of cowry shells, life-sized bronze heads and masks, bronze ritual vessels, more elephant tusks, a monumental 13-foot bronze tree and the first and only life-sized statue of a human figure known in China from this period.
These unusual Bronze Age objects date from the late 13th and early 12th centuries B.C., during the Shang dynasty, when the only previously known civilized societies were in residence far from Sichuan. Archaeologists indicate that the pits most likely represent a ritual ceremony in which offerings were burned or broken and then buried.
The implications of these discoveries are amazing for what they reveal about civilization. Sanxingdui was a genuine Bronze Age civilization, unrecorded in history and therefore unknown. Ancient Sichuan was a highly civilized society with its own cultural and artistic characteristics.
This outstanding collection of early Chinese treasures is traveling to the U.S. for a series of exhibitions and Seattle Art Museum is the first place to host this groundbreaking show. It offers a rare opportunity for the public to explore the art, material culture and spiritual life of a forgotten region.
Opening May 10, "Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan," will include 175 bronzes, jades and clay sculptures from Sichuan, many shown for the first time outside of China.
SAM will also bring an archaeological dig of Neolithic Chinese art to life for visitors through a virtual reality component. The first floor art studio will be transformed to give people the illusion of looking into an archaeological pit at Sanxingdu. Small groups of up to 12 visitors can gather at workstations and experience excavating the first three layers of one of the pits through a virtual reality program.
An audio track projects sound over the tables and introduces the archaeologist who guides participants through the "excavation."
In addition, a series of interactive multimedia kiosks are available to help enrich the public's understanding of this newly discovered ancient culture. All visitors can access an audio tour for use in the exhibition and there are both adult and family versions available.
To coincide with this exciting exhibit, SAM has coordinated its programming with various community partners to expand awareness of the cultures of China and the Pacific Rim. Music, dance and theater performances will be held throughout the coming months at SAM, Benaroya Hall and other venues around the area.
"Treasures from a Lost Civilization" will run through Aug. 12. For ticket information, call (206) 292-ARTS or visit SAM's Web site at www.seattleartmuseum.org.