View Some of the Most Important Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century at The Houston Museum of Natural Science

Sun Wheel from "China's Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui" exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
Sun Wheel from "China's Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui" exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
Photo courtesy of Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, CA

Objects from what is being billed as one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century can be viewed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in its upcoming exhibit, China's Lost Civilization: The Mystery Of Sanxingdui, opening April 10.

The ancient jades, weapons, burned animal bones, elephant tusks, statues and masks were found in two sacrificial pits outside the Sichuan Province capitol of Chengdu, in southwest China. "We all know China has one of the oldest civilizations, other than Egypt and Mesopotamia," said Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, HMNS curator of anthropology.

Archaeologists and historians always believed Chinese civilization began northeast of this find, on the Yellow River in China's central plain region, so finding these objects 1200 kilometers away has caused them to rethink everything they know and understand. "It's expanded our horizons," said Van Tuerenhout.

The Sanxingdui culture, which existed around 1800 BC, is considered lost because its people left no written record or human remains and seem to have vanished after about 500 years. "They were highly civilized, highly accomplished," said Van Tuerenhout, who added that archaeologists were puzzled by the sacrificial pit, indicating that the treasures weren't buried for safekeeping.

"The bronze had been burned and twisted. Why would you do that?" asked Van Tuerenhout. "The archaeologists came across these layers. Layers of bronze objects, ceramics, jade and elephant tusks."

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The three largest bronze masks are much larger than anything known from the period, containing strange, supernatural features. One human-animal composite mask contains wings for ears, no mouth, and large tubular beams protruding from what would have been the eye sockets.

In addition to the mask, there also are human forms. "There is a very tall statue, about 8' 5"; he could play for the Rockets," said Van Tuerenhout. "It is the largest known bronze human figure in the world. The hands are like full circles, with the index finger and thumb touching. It probably held something; some have suggested elephant tusks. There are no more elephants in China. The climate was warmer and could have supported elephants."

"What were they doing? What was this all about? It's a mystery," said Van Tuerenhout. "They left no written documents. We're trying to make sense of this culture."

China's Lost Civilization: The Mystery Of Sanxingdui opens April 10 and continues through September 7, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Drive, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays to Sundays, 713-639-4629 or visit hmns.org. $25.


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