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Metropolitan Displays Groundbreaking Chinese Collection - 2002-03-05

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is displaying a groundbreaking archaeological collection from ancient China in a traveling exhibition, "Treasures from a Lost Civilization". The art, which was excavated 15 years ago in Sichuan Province, upsets the prevailing theories about the origins of ancient China.

In 1986, when a group of workers digging clay stumbled upon two underground pits, they were trying to make bricks, not a landmark archaeological discovery.

The pits near the small village of Sanxingdui in Sichuan Province turned out to be an ancient sacrificial ritual grounds. The pits were full of treasures dating from the 13th century B.C. to the third century A.D.

Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Jason Sun, put the exhibit together. He says the ancient artifacts provided the concrete proof needed to challenge existing theories that ancient Chinese civilization originated in just one location the Middle Yellow River Valley.

"It does contribute a change to the fundamental ideas that civilization in China did not start from one place. It's a much more complex picture. It had many centers of civilization and all these centers interacted and that was the creation of the early phase of Chinese Civilization," Mr. Sun said.

Sichuan had been perceived as a backwater. But the 1986 excavation revealed a highly developed culture. For the first time, there was evidence from the Bronze Age in an area where only remnants from the Stone Age had previously been found. In the pits, archaeologists unearthed artifacts of sacrifice and war key elements of ancient Chinese civilization. Elaborately designed weapons, vessels, jades, birds and bronze trees were all neatly buried.

Scholars say the ancient representative art that was buried is particularly sophisticated. One example is a huge figure standing on a pedestal with oversized hands, which may have held a rare elephant tusk.

Dozens of masks were excavated. Many have human features, while others were designed with supernatural characteristics. Curator Jason Sun describes a highlight of the exhibit, a giant monster-like mask, which probably represented a deity. "Of course his very big ears probably show that he is very powerful, and could hear a lot better than you and I can. And his protruding eyes show he can see a lot better, he can see much farther than we can," he said.

The Director of Culture in China's Sichuan Province, Zhang Zhongyan, traveled to New York for the exhibit's opening. Speaking through a translator, he said archeologists are digging for new hidden treasures. "The excavation site is approximately four square kilometers and the excavation work is continuing. And we are looking forward to finding something new for us and also for the world," Zhang Zhongyan said.

The discovery of artifacts hidden for over 3,000 years turned the study of ancient China on its head. But it also illustrated the importance of excavations in locations previously overlooked. "It really provided more pieces to this large jigsaw puzzle. And it created a very complex picture so the beginning of Chinese Civilization doesn't look that neat any more. There are many other places we really need to search, to work on, to study, to learn about and that is the importance of this discovery," Mr. Sun said.

Since the sacrificial pits were unearthed, Sichuan Province has emerged as a sophisticated cultural center that both rivaled and interacted with the Middle Yellow River Valley. That new status has made it a focal point in the study of ancient Chinese civilization.