Newly Discovered Chinese Artifacts Illuminate a Mysterious Ancient Kingdom

A bronze altar and a pig-nosed dragon are among a trove of items discovered in sacrificial pits that shed new light on the buried secrets of an ancient Chinese civilization.

Archaeologists on Monday announced the “significant” series of finds at the Sanxingdui ruins in southwest China’s Sichuan province, according to the team behind the dig and the state-run Xinhua news agency.

A team including scholars from Peking University and Sichuan University found thousands of items, including intricate bronze, gold and jade items, and what it called the unprecedented discovery of 10 bronzes. Experts say the finds date back 3,000 to 4,500 years.

Discovered in the late 1920s, Sanxingdui is one of the key Chinese archaeological sites. Experts believe that its treasures once belonged to the ancient Shu kingdom, which dates back to 4,800 years ago and lasted for 2,000 years.

The new finds come mainly from what archaeologists call sacrificial pits 7 and 8, with the highlight being a bronze box with a tortoise-shaped lid containing jade artifacts, including dragon heads. Traces of silk cloth were found around the box.

China Sichuan Sanxingdui ruin discoveries – June 01, 2022 (Chine Nouvelle/SIPA/Shutterstock)

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the vessel is one of a kind, given its distinctive shape, fine craftsmanship and ingenious design. Although we don’t know what this container was used for, we can guess that ancient people treasured it,” said Li Haichao, a professor from Sichuan University who is in charge of the excavation at Pit 7, according to Xinhua.

The role of wells and their use is questioned. An academic, Chen Shen, argued in a 2002 book: “Some believe that the pits are a kind of burial, but without human skeletons; the body could have been reduced to ashes as a result of a ritual burning ceremony.”

Burnt fragments of ivory were found in a pit and the presence of ash, possibly the remains of trees and plants used for fuel, has led archaeologists to speculate that boxes were placed in the pits for burning.

In Pit 8, archaeologists found even more elaborate bronze work, including heads with gold masks, an altar, and a pig-nosed dragon.

A curious three-part sculpture features a human-headed serpent with bulging eyes, fangs, and horns. The top of the head resembles an ancient trumpet-shaped wine vessel.

Ran Honglin of the Sichuan Provincial Archeology and Cultural Relics Research Institute said some elements of the sculpture were typical of the Shu kingdom, while others were seen on items from the Zhou dynasty.

“These three factors are now combined into one artifact, showing that Sanxingdui is an important part of Chinese civilization,” he told Xinhua.

“More cultural relics unearthed at Sanxingdui have also been seen elsewhere in China, giving evidence of early exchange and integration of Chinese civilization,” Honglin added.



“The sculptures are very complex and imaginative, reflecting the fairy world imagined by people at the time, and demonstrating the diversity and richness of Chinese civilization,” said Zhao Hao, an associate professor at Peking University who led the excavation of the well 8. Xinhua.

The institute said some 13,000 items have already been found at Sanxingdui since excavations began in the 1980s.

The 12-square-mile site was accidentally discovered in the late 1920s by a farmer in Sichuan province who was repairing a sewage ditch. It is considered one of the most important Chinese archaeological finds and one of the world’s greatest discoveries of the 20th century.

Members of the China National Cultural Heritage Administration have been working on the site in Guanghan city, southwest China's Sichuan province.  (AP File)

Members of the China National Cultural Heritage Administration have been working on the site in Guanghan city, southwest China’s Sichuan province. (AP File)

The finds paint a vivid picture of life in ancient China. Small sacrificial pits and slaughtered remains of cattle and wild boar were found along with reeds, bamboo and soybeans.

Most historians and archaeologists previously thought that the birthplace of Chinese civilization was the Yellow River basin in northern China. But the discovery of Sanxingdui and its excavation in the 1980s challenged those assumptions.

The new finds are expected to be displayed in an exhibition at the Sanxingdui Museum near Guanghan city in 2023.

Mystery has surrounded the fate of the societies that created the artifacts found at Sanxingdui. Evidence shows that at some point they left the area and moved to the ancient city of Jinsha, near the modern city of Chengdu.

Some scholars believe that the movement was caused by an earthquake 3,000 years ago.

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