The Discoveries at Sanxingdui: What Do You Do With a Dead Elephant?


The Discoveries at Sanxingdui: What Do You Do With a Dead Elephant?

Bowers MuseumBowers Museum

I recently had the pleasure of viewing a beautiful and beautifully curated exhibition, China’s Lost Civilization, at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California.

The exhibit closes March 15; see it if you can.

China’s Lost Civilization presents 3000-year old artifacts unearthed in and around Chengdu of a heretofore unknown civilization. Discussions of the culture characterize it as “Sanxingdui” simply because that’s where the most important site was uncovered. We don’t know what these people called themselves or even what language they spoke. No written records, indeed no writing at all, has been discovered and the masks and iconography little resemble that of the “quintessentially Chinese” culture evolving in the Central Plain at the same time. For instance, there are lots of impressive bronze masks and statues, but in style and casting technique they don’t really resemble the art of the Shang.

“China’s Lost Civilization” seems to be something of a misnomer or wishful thinking. A more accurate title might have been “Stuff Discovered Inside Today’s China Left by People Who Maybe Came from Somewhere Else.” Although the PRC has not gotten itself tangled up in the same sort of nationalist-chauvinist knots as India’s Prime Minister Modi and his BJP party (residents of California may remember the multi-year fight over official high school textbooks accomodating the Hindu chauvinist insistence that the Aryans were indigenous and not invaders), the CCP is locked in dubious archaeological and historiographical battle to justify its suzerainity over Xinjiang and Tibet. Perhaps the PRC archaeological establishment feels a bit queasy about exploring the idea that an important Bronze Age civilization within China was actually an extension of South Asian culture.

Sichuan, China

Sichuan, China

The elephant in the room is, literally elephants. Elephants, at least elephant tusks, were a big deal at Sanxingdui, perhaps serving as ritual objects, symbols of authority, stores of wealth, or all of the above. Statuary was apparently used to display tusks; it looks like some of the smaller masks may have been mounted on the tips of tusks, and researchers believe that some of the masks represent abstract depictions of elephants.

Elephants are not a Chinese thing, zoologically, archaeologically, or paleontologically.

The most reasonable deduction is that the tusks-and maybe the people who took up residence at Sanxingdui-entered Sichuan through southern trade routes.

Since I, on the other hand, revel in the unreasonable, I like to speculate that the outsiders arrived at Sanxingdui on their own herd of domesticated South Asian elephants, overawed whatever locals were there, and set up their own kingdom with a major elephant-worship component.

In support of this theory is the existence of some immense, heavy bronze masks that no human could have worn and were probably displayed or hung in temples (they have rectangular holes along the side that may have been used for tie-ropes). Or…they could have been used to caparison some awesome elephants for procession, war, or whatever!

An argument against this theory is that pretty much the only elephant remains uncovered are tusks, many in a huge stack. If you look closely at one of the videos of the excavation work, you can see archaeologists doing their picky-picky brush-brush thing around something that looks like an elephant jawbone, with the big grinding molar that looks like the sole of a moonboot, but that’s about it. No legs, ribs, skulls, whatever have been found.

Pit of elephant bones. Bowers Museum.

Pit of elephant bones. Bowers Museum.

However, I don’t consider this an unanswerable objection. If the elephant population was indeed a treasured, imported royal herd, the death of an elephant and the decay and disposal of its carcass would not be handled casually. It would have been a big deal, both for religious reasons and because several tons of rotting elephant is not the kind of thing you just leave laying around.

If I had to dispose of a dead elephant in the pre-backhoe days, I would burn it. And indeed, that is exactly what was done in Siam, which was pretty much the world capital of elephant worship.

A Belgian scholar, Dirk Van der Cruysse, collected some European travellers’ tales concerning Siam in his book, Siam and the West, 1500-1700. He quotes one account of elephant obsequies recorded by a Belgian visitor in the early 1600s:

The day of its death, the king was wracked by grief; he even said his father had just died. He ordered the people and all the grandees of his kingdom to come and worship the elephant. For this, they carried the corpse outside the city to the opposite bank of the river and placed it in front of a temple…They build above the elephant an enormous dais of blue damask, disembowelled it, took out the viscera which they treated with perfumed balsams and covered with a huge quantity of flowers and roses. The placed golden stakes inside the stomach to hold it up…Then they built all around a vast wooden square gallery which was gilded and painted…The elephant already stank for more than half a league around. Then all the grandees and the mandarins came to worship … the animal on their knees. These barbaric practices lasted eight days and nights in the midst of non-stop dances and an infernal din…They placed around numerous painted and sealed containers full of food; these barbarians said that the elephant needed to eat too in the next life.

When eight days had passed, the talapoins [priests] buried it beneath faggots of wood. The king arrived, went around the elephant three times, lit the pyre, and ordered that the ashes be collected in golden vases after the cremation. These urns were placed among those of his parents and ancestors. Two mahouts of the elephant then presented themselves before the king and told him that since their master, the elephant, was dead, they wished to goin their turn to the other world to serve him. The king thanked them effusively, unsheathed his sword, cut them in two and had them cremated with many honours…

So my theory: South Asia tribe moves into Sichuan with imported herd of domesticated elephants. When the elephants die, their tusks are harvested and their bodies cremated. Maybe because of inbreeding or because the chilly, rainy environs of Sichuan are a lousy climate for elephants, the herd does not thrive, the population dwindles and is eventually extinguished. The humans, their source of authority and prestige gone, become ordinary sodbusters and are eventually absorbed into the Chinese polity. You’re welcome, archaeologists!

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