Bronze sacred tree found in Sanxingdui sacrificial pit

The excavation of one of the six newly-discovered sacrificial pits at the Sanxingdui Bronze Age archaeological site in southwest China’s Sichuan Province has unearthed a bronze sacred tree from the Shu culture, ca. 12th/11th century B.C. It was found in parts in Pit 3, and is so complex that its surviving branches, flowers, some of the trunk and solar wheel ornament took four months to fully excavate because they were buried under heavy layers of ivory and other artifacts. 

Sacred trees have been found before at the site. The 1986 excavation of Pit 2 unearthed hundreds of pieces from six to eight bronze trees, most of them modest in size. Only three of them could be pieced back together from their component parts. One of them, a colossal example that took conservators a decade to reassemble, is now on display as the centerpiece of the Sanxingdui Museum‘s exceptional collection of artifacts from the ancient site.

The massive restored tree consists of a three-legged base with a trunk growing out of it. The trunk is divided into three levels with three branches curling downward in each level. Flowers bloom on the high points of all nine of the branches and birds alight on the flowers. Each branch in turn branches off into three fruit-bearing branchlets, for a total of 27 fruits on the tree. A slim dragon with a horned head undulates down the lower segment of the trunk, his foot planted in the base.

There is very little concrete information about the Shu people and state as no written records have survived. The archaeological record and later chroniclers indicate the Shu religion was centered on sun worship, and the bronze trees may have been part of it. The Shu Legend of the Ten Suns held that birds carried nine suns on their backs, flying in the morning from a sacred tree in the East, and landing at night in a sacred tree in the West. Humans, according to the legend, only the saw the birds, not the suns they carried, so they lived their lives blithely unaware there were any other suns besides the one we know.

According to Xu [Feihong, excavation leader], the new one is similar to the No. 2 bronze tree which took archaeologists over a decade to restore. Yet, it’s still not complete with several parts missing.

“It cannot be ruled out that these two might belong to the same tree. If the two sacred trees in pits No. 2 and No. 3 are put together, they can explain a lot of academic issues,” said Xu.

There are no plans as of yet to embark on the reassembly and restoration of the Pit 3 tree, not until all six of the new sacrificial pits have been fully excavated. Armed with all the information and contents of the pits, archaeologists will then piece together this tree too, and it will go on display next to its brother from Pit 2.

5 thoughts on “Bronze sacred tree found in Sanxingdui sacrificial pit

  1. Yet another “beer (or rice wine) pump”?!? :confused:

    Some of those Sanxingdui bronze sculptures are really bizarre, and some do remind of later artifacts from Polynesia and Middle America, but that might be just me and seems to be sheer coincidence. Again much later, and likewise coincidental, might be Möngke Khan’s “Silver Tree” in his capital in Karakorum. Here an 18th-century imagination:

    “…Mangu (Möngke Khan) had at Caracarum a great palace (…), where he has his drinkings twice a year: once about Easter, when he passes there, and once in summer, when he goes back westward. And the latter is the greater feast, for then come to his court all the nobles, even though distant two months journey; (…) In the entry of this great palace (…) master William the Parisian had made for him a great silver tree, and at its roots are four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of mares. And four conduits are led inside the tree to its tops, which are bent downward, and on each of these is also a gilded serpent, whose tail twines round the tree. And from one of these pipes flows wine, from another (…) and from another rice mead, which is called /terracina/; and for each liquor there is a special silver bowl at the foot of the tree to receive it. (…)”

  2. Some of the lines and motifs of these ancient Chinese bronzes are in many ways startlingly similar to the west-coast North American art of the Haida, and of the other coastal groups along the BC coast and Vancouver Island.
    And the only ‘native North American’ peony is found in California: a smallish rather unattractive flower. But to the Chinese Asians, peonies had medicinal uses… makes one wonder whether people might have managed to come across in boats from Asia a very long time ago, either following the coastline, or navigating like the Polynesians. I wonder if anyone is following this idea, perhaps by collecting/studying old stories from the Canadian west coast people? There’s some thought that the glaciers didn’t cover the whole west coastline, and also that many ancient villages may now be submerged deep underwater, due to changing sea levels.

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