The first and largest section of the exhibition focuses on the Sanxingdui culture—a Bronze Age culture named after the archaeological site—and features a selection of more than sixty works that date from about the twelfth century B.C. One of the most impressive of these objects is a very tall bronze sculpture, Figure on Pedestal—the only large figure found in either of the two pits. With compelling facial features—massive eyebrows above bulging eyes, a broad nose, and a square jaw—and with disproportionately large hands, this life-size statue rises on its tall pedestal more than eight feet. Of the many bronze masks excavated from the pits, six spectacular pieces are being shown in the exhibition, including an enormous bronze work called Mask with Protruding Pupils. Its size (more than four feet in width) and the large pupils of its eyes qualify this piece as one of the most unusual among the Sanxingdui finds. Another striking find is a thirteen-foot-tall bronze tree with ornaments, portions of which are on display.
The second section of the exhibition is devoted to objects found in Sichuan tombs created in the Zhou period. Among the highlights are: a flamboyant bronze vessel from the late eleventh to early tenth century B.C.; the bronze blade of a weapon with exuberant ornamentation from the first half of the first millennium B.C.; and an elaborately decorated chime of fourteen bells from the fourth century B. C., the largest known example of its kind.
The final section of the exhibition comprises works from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), a period that witnessed dramatic changes in the conception of the spirit world and the afterlife. Tombs were viewed as microcosms of the universe, where the deceased were fed, waited upon, entertained, and could live happily ever after. The belief in eternal prosperity and everlasting life is represented vividly in the exhibition by diverse ceramic images of architecture, horse carriages, farmers, servants, guards, and entertainers, as well as molded bricks depicting hunting, fishing, harvesting, wine making, salt production, and feasting and entertaining activities.
In Sichuan, images of feasting and entertainment were characteristically depicted with a lively expressiveness that is rarely seen elsewhere in the art of the ancient world. Two such works are the three-dimensional ceramic sculptures of entertainers called Figure of a Squatting Drummer and Figure of a Standing Drummer, dating to the first or second century A.D. Drummers such as those depicted specialized in a kind of part-spoken, part-sung storytelling, and Han tomb figures like these were especially popular and abundant. Their comical—almost caricatural—postures express vividly the artistic determination to capture the most fleeting gestures or facial expressions.
Among the notable works in this final section is a molded brick from the second century A.D., Brick with Chariot and Horseman Crossing a Bridge, which conveys a strong sense of action and realism. Another work in this format from the same period is Brick Depicting an Erotic Scene, one of the earliest known examples of erotic art in China.