Museum Sketchbook: Mysteries of Sanxingdui

This past Sunday my sister-in-law gave birth to her first child. While she was in labor, I paced the halls of the Houston Museum of Natural Science waiting for news. I felt like I had to keep moving-- as if that would speed my sister-in-law's labor along. I'd already planned to visit the museum that day, since a new exhibit, The Mysteries of Sanxingdui: China's Lost Civilization, had just opened.

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I walked and sketched and prayed for the baby's safe delivery in the company of some of the oddest works of art I have ever encountered. I have never seen anything like these bizarre bronze statues. Apparently the archaeologists haven't seen anything like them either, because the information for each piece was very vague: "We think this is a religious artifact," or "this wheel might symbolize the sun."

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On the upper left is one of my favorites, a smiling head the size of a boulder with two pillars jutting out of its eyes. Perhaps the pillars symbolized a gimlet gaze, or all-seeing eyes. My father suggested maybe this was a torture victim with spikes driven through his skull. If so, this head is the happiest torture victim ever, because it's definitely smiling.

I was also struck by the consistency of design. The ears had the same curls, the eyes and jaws the same lines and geometric angles. I'm no archaeologist, but these pieces look as if they were designed by the same artist, or at least came from the same "design studio", or the ancient Chinese equivalent. The muppets created by the Jim Henson Company all have a family resemblance. Tim Burton's films all have that creepy Burtonesque flavor. These bronze oddities have that same feeling.

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All in all, a great exhibit. And my niece, Henrietta Mae, was welcomed into the world at 2:39PM EST:

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