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3,000-year-old gold mask found in China

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Chinese archaeologists found a 3,000-year-old gold mask among more than 500 objects unearthed from six sacrificial pits at an archaeological site in southwestern Sichuan province.

The ceremonial mask weighs about 280 grams and is estimated to be made from 84% gold. Bronze remains of silk cloth, gold leaf, and ivory, jade, and bone artifacts were also found in the graves, the largest of which has an area of ​​19 square meters. Some of the bronze objects are decorated with drawings of dragons and oxen. In addition, bronze vessels with drawings in the shape of an owl were found.

In a pit, a wooden box 1.5 meters long and 40 centimeters wide covered with cinnabar was found. A plan to open it is still being worked out.

“These artifacts show that the Sanxingdui site had a close connection to central China, but it also marks an ancient original civilization (in Sichuan) with strong creativity,” said Chen Xiandan, a member of the project.

Chinese civilization

The finds were made in Sanxingdui, a 12-square-kilometer area outside the provincial capital of Chengdu. Sanxingdui is believed to have been at the heart of the Shu state, which ruled the western Sichuan Basin until it was conquered in 316 BC.

Historians know relatively little about this state due to scant written records. Discoveries made at the site date back to the 12th and 11th centuries BC.

The first find was made in 1929, when a local farmer accidentally found several relics at the site. Since then more than 50,000 ancient artifacts have been found at Sanxingdui. A breakthrough was made in 1986 with the discovery of two ceremonial graves containing more than 1,000 objects, including elaborately decorated bronze objects, face masks and so-called divine trees, bronze sculptures with outstretched branches. At the end of 2019, a third grave was found, followed by another five in 2020.

Archaeologists believe that the graves were used for sacrificial purposes, which explains why many of the objects contained were ritually burned when thrown and buried.

According to the scientists, the latest findings “enrich and deepen our understanding of the Sanxingdui culture.”

The discovery of silk fibers and tissue scraps can also broaden our understanding of the Shu. Its discovery indicates that the kingdom “was one of the important origins of silk in ancient China,” believes Tang Fei, the director of the excavation team and head of the Sichuan Provincial Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology.

High-tech archeology

34 universities and research institutes cooperate in the research project in Sanxingdui. To better preserve the unearthed relics and analyze the finds in time, each pit is covered by separate excavation structures and there are laboratories with high-tech equipment.

Until now, this method had not been used in archaeological excavations in China, according to the researchers.

“The conservation of the relics is processed simultaneously with the archeology,” said Lei Yu, a researcher at the Sichuan Provincial Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology who is leading the ongoing excavation. 

“The focus is not just on the artifacts. We don’t want any hidden information to be lost on the ground.”

Song Xinchao, deputy director of the National Administration of Cultural Heritage, said that the scientific research in Sanxingdui is an example of Chinese archeology in the new era.

“It is an open platform to combine the efforts of the entire country on academic issues,” Song said. “We would like foreign teams to join the investigation as well.”

Lei hopes the findings at Sanxingdui will help create a system for studying the Shu civilization, combining research at nearby Sichuan sites.

“By taking a broader perspective, Sanxingdui will contribute to our exploration of how Chinese civilization was formed by mixing different cultures,” added Song.

Although not yet recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sanxingdui is on the organization’s “provisional list” for possible future inclusion. Along with other archaeological sites of Shu, the UN agency considers it “an outstanding representative of the Bronze Age civilization of China, East Asia, and even the world.”

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