A Great Mystery: Sanxingdui Masks

Nadine Waldmann 30 November 2023 min Read

Who doesn’t love a mystery? Especially an art history mystery. Made by a previously unknown Chinese kingdom, the 3,000-year-old bronze Sanxingdui masks are shrouded in many unanswered questions and continue to intrigue and puzzle decades after their discovery.

sanxingdui masks
Sanxingdui bronze mask. 12th c BCE, Sanxingdui Museum. Source:

Sanxingdui Masks

I had never even heard of or seen these masks until I was watching Civilizations, a BBC art history program released in 2018. They were so enigmatic and unusual. I was surprised to find out that they are from China’s Bronze Age. At first glance, I assumed they were Native or South American.

Sanxingdui bronze mask, ca.1600 - 1046 BCE, Sanxingdui Museum Gallery, Sichuan Province, China.
Sanxingdui bronze mask, ca.1600 – 1046 BCE, Sanxingdui Museum Gallery, Sichuan Province, China.

In 1926 in Sanxingdui (China’s Sichuan province), a farmer found a few jade and stone artifacts dating to the 12th century BCE. It wasn’t until 1986 that the monumental find of two sacrificial pits filled with hundreds of deliberately and ritually broken or burned jade, bronze and ivory pieces were found. The artifacts were determined to be from a previously unknown Bronze Age civilization, the Shu. They existed from approximately 1250 – 1100 BCE, then suddenly disappeared. Nearby landslides and geological shifts suggest an earthquake might be the most logical explanation for their vanishing. Adding to the mystery is the absence of any human remains or materials. Also there are no texts or historical records at the site or at any neighboring locations or villages.

Sanxingdui Sacrificial Pit 2, c. 1200 BCE, Courtesy Sichuan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Sanxingdui Museum Gallery, Sichuan Province, China.

Bronze Head with braid and gold mask, Sanxingdui Museum Gallery, Sichuan Province, China.

The finds in the pits generated shock and excitement, it also showcased the extent of the incredible bronze work of the Shu. The variety of items includes almost 100 tusks, jade and ceramic pieces, bronze masks, snakes, birds, trees, and ceremonial knives. Yet the reason they were left there broken and burned is still unknown.

“Mask with Protruding Eyes,” is unloaded at the Bowers Museum, in Santa Ana, CA. 2014. Source: Chris Carlson / AP.

Sanxingdui means “three star mounds”. The site has three earth mounds, which according to legend, were created when the heavenly emperor cast handfuls of earth on the land. Archaeologists determined that the mounds are the remains of the wall of another ancient city which was built over with earth.

Sanxingdui Museum bronze and relief. Source: CGTN. Sanxingdui Museum Gallery, Sichuan Province, China.

The bronze work is expertly crafted, and the first time this type is seen in ancient China. There is no precedent or reference. The craftsmanship is normally associated with Greek and Egyptian art, so it was a revolutionary find.

Bronze mask with gold foil, Sanxingdui Museum Gallery, Sichuan Province, China.

The rock star finds are the masks. Masks were rare in ancient China, not to mention that the soldering and gilding of masks were unheard of before this find. They vary in size from life-size to the size of a small car. With almond eyes, protruding eyeballs, and ears, their strange and unusual appearance has been called alien, bizarre, and weird. Speculation is that they are depictions of rulers, shamans, or participants in religious worship. Their appearance is part animal or a representation of supernatural beings.

Mask possibly depicting King Cancong, c. 1250–1100 BCE, Sanxingdui Museum Gallery, Sichuan Province, China.

So fabulous and strange, the bronze Sanxingdui masks have no names and no markings. We don’t know who made them or why. Every source I went through marveled at the mystery and lack of information or background available on the artifacts. It’s fascinating that in this age of information and all that we have in our libraries and online, these kinds of mysteries still exist. These silent masks speak to us and show how much there still is to learn and discover.

If you enjoyed reading about the Sanxingdui masks, you will also like other art history mysteries we have in our magazine.


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