The Secret Chinese Underground at the Bowers Museum

History isn't an exact science, and nowhere is that more obvious than at the Bowers Museum's touring exhibition “China's Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui.”

Considered to be one of the “greatest archeological finds ever to be unearthed,” hundreds of deliberately placed artifacts were discovered by modern construction workers in ancient pits just miles from a provincial capital. Dated at about 1200 B.C. and wholly different from anything dug up prior, the previously undocumented civilization at Sanxingdui forced historians to rethink their perceptions of the country's initial seat of influence. But the discovery also triggered a number of tricky questions: Why the strange, inhuman features on the statues and masks? What was the cache of elephant tusks used for, and where did they come from? There's an impressive amount of bronze work but no evidence of a foundry, so how did the heavy objects get there? Why were they placed in the pit? Why were they intentionally crushed and broken? A decade and a half later, a similar site, located in nearby Jinsha, added even more fuel to the confusing fire.

Guest curator Suzanne E. Cahill, Ph.D., runs with that confusion in her slightly unnerving tour through the Bowers, lighting the masks and statues for maximum mysteriousness, offering an informed conjecture where she can, but still leaving us in the dark by the end of the tour.

The mystery begins with enlarged photographs covering the wall from the floor to the ceiling. Tinted, with just the exhibit pieces in color, it's a mishmash of broken pottery, masks, ritual vessels, busts, ornaments and jade, all cracked or broken. They are piled up in their pits, with few of the objects recognizable until closely scrutinized. Curiosity takes over: What the hell is that stuff? What is it used for? Is that gold? Are there bodies in there? (Answers: Unsure. Unsure. Yes. No.)

Standing guard at the entrance, the elongated shaman/god on its pedestal—with its goblin eyes, lockjaw grimace and Vulcan ears—resembles a cross between amphibian and mammal, possibly human, possibly a god, or maybe something altogether different. Its empty, circular claws grip at a missing artifact; the long-gone piece, surmised to be an elephant tusk, was seemingly used as part of a worship service.

“Seemingly” is the operative word here, since no one knows what any of the statues, masks and trinkets were used for. There are plenty of guesses—most likely something religious—but since no one even knew these civilizations existed until the past couple of decades, even the educated appear flummoxed. The informative audio tour available with each admission features talking heads—professionals in their fields, including Cahill—pontificating on what we see as we walk through the gallery, but none of them can say for certain what it is that we're actually seeing. The only thing we can be certain about is that a civilization we didn't know existed before the early '80s did, in fact, exist. The purpose and meaning of the artifacts left behind are anyone's guess.

Most of the pieces on display can be explained away as clan (bird bronzes) or religious totems (the recovered pieces of “spirit trees,” a precursor of modern-day wind chimes, and the sculpted birds, feathers and ornaments that would have hung from its branches). The micro-car-sized bronze masks also suggest worship; Mask With Protruding Eyes' bulging Tex Avery orbs, visage-width grin and gargantuan jug ears cuts an imposing figure. There's conjecture the people of Jinsha and Sanxingdui worshiped the sun (wheel-shaped objects minus any wheeled vehicles, eye sculptures that vaguely resemble Illuminati symbols or space ships if given a forgiving side eye), but to make things even more confusing, there's also plenty of evidence suggesting they worshipped composite animal/human deities, believing (as did other ancient people) that powerful animal imagery warded off evil. Fragment of Figure With Human Body and Bird's Feet is a bronze human form that transmogrifies into a bird, its predator talons gripping the head of another bird that looks vaguely as if it's also part snake. Likewise, Mask of Human-Animal Composite Creature is a sturdy mask with a sizable elephant horn/trunk rigidly rising between its two eyes.

Despite the best efforts of historians and scholars, the secrets of the people of Sanxingdui vanished when their civilization did. Survivors migrated to Jinsha before that society also collapsed, and we're not even sure why that happened. Drought, disease, flooding and climate change are all possibilities, but in the search for answers, looking to the empty hands of the statue at the exhibition's entrance seems the smartest idea to me . . . and as perfect a metaphor as possible for those of us attending the exhibition. Hope for an answer, grasping onto nothing but air, despite how glorious and mysterious that air may be.

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