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Bowers exhibition to examine 'lost' ancient Chinese civilization

Most museum exhibitions try to give answers, but an unusual Chinese antiquities show the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana has announced as its big fall attraction will focus on 3,000-year-old artifacts in bronze, gold and jade that mainly have produced bafflement.

"China’s Lost Civilization: the Mystery of Sanxingdui" is to feature more than 120 ceremonial objects that include towering human figures and trees made of bronze, carved heads and masks. They come from Sanxingdui and Jinsha, archaeological sites near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwestern China.

Bowers President Peter Keller said the show, set to run Oct. 19 to March 15, 2015, will mark the first time pieces from the 2001 Jinsha find have come to the United States. The Sanxingdui artifacts come from burial pits discovered in 1986, and some were featured in an early 2000s exhibition, “Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan,” that began at the Seattle Art Museum and toured the U.S. but didn’t come to Southern California.

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The vanished culture that inhabited Jinsha and Sanxingdui -- where 80 elephant tusks were buried along with the statues, masks and other artifacts -- was distinct and geographically remote from the Chinese dynastic civilization that was developing at the same time in other regions.

It left no written inscriptions, and the strangeness of some of the images has given rise to speculation in certain quarters that extraterrestrials could have had something to do with them. Far from discouraging that tourism-friendly if somewhat unscholarly notion, the municipal government of Chengdu commissioned science fiction writers in 2011 to conjure tales explaining the phenomenon, according to a report by China’s Xinhua news agency.

“They’re extraordinary, with bulging eyes and wide, smiling mouths, and frankly they do look like aliens,” Keller said Wednesday. “It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in the world.”

The Bowers is still working on an exhibition layout and display texts for the objects being provided by the Sichuan Cultural Bureau.

Given the scarcity of firm knowledge about the works and their creators, Keller said, “I’d like to take this on as kind of a detective story. You have some sort of incident here, and your first step is to find out who are the suspects” that might have made a civilization bury its treasures and suddenly vanish. “You just point out the questions and come up with alternatives for answers, and show what’s there.”

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At the museum in Sanxingdui, Keller said, “there’s a big wall comparing it to the Maya” -- the ancient Central American civilization that suffered a rapid and still mysterious demise.

“China’s Lost Civilization” continues a string of high-profile exhibitions on Chinese history and culture at the Bowers since 1997. The museum board's chair, Anne Shih, who emigrated to the United States from her native Taiwan in 1979, has developed key contacts with Chinese cultural authorities, which gave rise to previous exhibitions on ancient Chinese mummies, Beijing’s Forbidden City, and the Terra Cotta Warriors, among others.

Keller said the “Lost Civilization” show will move on next year to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

The Bowers’ current featured show, “Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt,” displays embalmed dogs, cats, snakes and other pets, along with related objects, all of them from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.

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