Ancient art unearthed

These two extraordinarily different, ancient figures have a couple of things in common. They were both discovered in recent years by archaeologists working in a southwestern part of China, in the province of Sichuan. And they are both included in a major exhibition, currently in Fort Worth, Texas, designed as a tribute to the discoveries made in this area, which previously had been thought to have had little in the way of ancient culture.

It turns out that Sichuan had a vigorous, independent Bronze Age culture over a surprisingly large area, a culture whose practices and artifacts were quite unlike those in northern China. The tall bronze figure on a pedestal is believed to have been made in about the 12th century BC.

It was discovered, along with many other unexpected objects, in the second of two sacrificial pits that brickyard workers happened upon in 1986, when they were digging clay in the small village of Sanxingdui. They immediately alerted archaeologists who had been recently working nearby. Vessels, masks, figures, bronze trees and birds were found in the same pit. Like this figure, many had been broken, perhaps as part of some ritual, before being carefully placed in the pit.

Restored and pieced together, the figure is 8-1/2 feet tall. A note in the exhibition catalog suggests the "greatly oversize hands probably held an object that the man offered in sacrifice, perhaps an elephant tusk. His head has the same blocky shape and sharp-cut features as the other heads from the Sanxingdui pits."

The exhibit and its accompanying book span about 1,600 years, and the second figure shown here is from the last part of the period, the first or second century AD. By that time, Sichuan had become part of China as a whole. Its funerary artifacts, like this exuberant dancer, belonged to a local branch of a much wider culture.

The ceramic dancer is one of a variety of entertainers and banqueters that were apparently felt necessary for the amusement of the Sichuan gentry interred in these "afterlife dwellings, magically furnished" as Jessica Rawson, a British authority on Chinese archaeology, describes them in her catalog essay. Such vigorous figures found in these burial places suggest a culture where people who relished a "good life" here, believed they'd continue to have one in the hereafter.

Treasure From a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan' is at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, until Jan. 13, 2002. It will be at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art March 4 to June 16.

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