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 discoveries at the Sanxingdui ruins in southwest China’s Sichuan province, according to the team behind the excavation and the state-run Xinhua news agency.
A team including academics from Peking University and Sichuan University found thousands of items, including intricate bronze, gold and jade items, and what they called the unprecedented discovery of 10 bronzes. Experts say the findings date back 3,000 to 4,500 years.
Discovered in the late 1920s, Sanxingdui is one of the main Chinese archaeological sites. Experts think its treasures belonged to the ancient Shu kingdom, which dates back 4,800 years and lasted 2,000 years.
The new finds mainly come from what archaeologists call Sacrificial Pits 7 and 8, the highlight being a bronze box with a turtle-shaped lid containing jade artifacts, including dragon heads. Traces of silk fabric were found around the box.
“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the vessel is unique given its distinctive shape, fine craftsmanship and ingenious design. Although we don’t know what this ship was used for, we can assume that ancient people valued it,” said Li Haichao, a professor at Sichuan University who is in charge of excavating shaft 7, according to Xinhua.
The role of wells and their use is disputed. One academic, Chen Shen, argued in a 2002 book: “Some believe the graves are a kind of burial, but without human skeletons; the body may have been reduced to ashes as a result of a ritual burning ceremony.
Burnt ivory fragments were found in a pit and the presence of ash, possibly the remains of trees and plants used as fuel, has led archaeologists to speculate that boxes were placed in the pits to be burned.
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 snake with protruding eyes, fangs and horns. The top of the head resembles an ancient trumpet-shaped wine vessel.
Ran Honglin of the Sichuan Province Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeological Research said that 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 blended into one artifact, which demonstrates that Sanxingdui is an important part of Chinese civilization,” he told Xinhua.
“More cultural relics unearthed in Sanxingdui were also seen in other locations in China, evidencing the early exchange and integration of Chinese civilization,” added Honglin.
“The sculptures are very complex and imaginative, reflecting the fairy world imagined by people at that time, and they demonstrate the diversity and richness of Chinese civilization,” said Zhao Hao, an associate professor at Peking University who led the excavation of Pit 8. Xinhua.
The institute said about 13,000 items have been found in 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 fixing a sewer ditch. It is considered one of the most important Chinese archaeological finds and one of the world’s greatest discoveries of the 20th century.
The findings paint a vivid picture of life in ancient China. Small sacrificial pits and the sacrificed remains of cattle and wild boar were found alongside reeds, bamboos and soybeans.
Most historians and archaeologists previously thought that the cradle 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 findings are expected to be displayed in an exhibition at the Sanxingdui Museum near the city of Guanghan in 2023.
Mystery 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 the movement was caused by an earthquake 3,000 years ago.