More than 500 relics discovered in 'sacrificial' pits in China

Stunning 3,000-year-old gold ceremonial mask and bronze ‘Big Mouth’ statue are among over 500 items unearthed from six sacrificial pits in China

  • Researchers announce discovery of priceless artefacts at an archaeological site in China’s Sichuan province
  • More than 500 cultural relics like golden mask fragments and bird-shaped gold ornaments were unearthed
  • Experts think it’s possible that the artefacts were ritually burnt and buried by an as-yet-unknown civilisation

A 3,000-year-old gold ceremonial mask, possibly worn by a priest and used for sacrificial purposes, is one of more than 500 items unearthed from six rectangular pits in China. 

The priceless cultural relics – unearthed at the Sanxingdui archaeological site in the province of Sichuan, southwest China – also include bird-shaped ornaments, two kinds of silk and a bronze statue adorned with depictions of ‘beasts’.  

Only about half of the gold mask is still fully intact, but experts believe it is around 84 per cent pure gold and in its original state weighed close to 500 grams (one pound).  

Researchers who began digging at the site in 2019 said most of the 500 items were crafted out of gold, bronze, jade and ivory, according to the South China Morning Post.   

They believe the pits may have been used for sacrificial purposes by members an as-yet-unknown civilisation, and that the objects now found within them were ritually burned before being buried. 

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A partial gold mask unearthed from the Sanxingdui Ruins site in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. Chinese archaeologists announced Saturday that some new discoveries were made at the Sanxingdui Ruins site in southwest China

The findings were shared in a blog post by the government of Chengdu, which is the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province.  

Sanxingdui is a well-known archaeological site and tourist hotspot outside of Chengdu. 

The mask and the other exciting new findings will ‘help deepen the understanding of the cultural relationship between the Chengdu Plain and the surrounding areas’, according to officials, although much mystery still surrounds the golden mask. 

‘At present, it is inferred that this golden mask is also used for sacrifice, but because it is much larger than a human face, it is unlikely to be worn by a person,’ said an unnamed expert cited in the post. 

The gold mask seen here in the ruins, was among more than 500 relics found in prehistoric Sanxingdui – a well-known archaeological site and tourist hotspot outside of the city of Chengdu

‘It is still impossible to draw an accurate conclusion at present, and further archaeological excavations are needed.’ 

If the complete weight of this golden mask was more than 500 grams, it would make it the largest golden mask found in China, as well as the heaviest golden object found in the country.  

The mask was found in pit number five out of six, but another two pits – seven and eight – are now also being excavated and could reveal the other half. 

In sacrificial pit number three, a ‘rare, well-preserved, and exquisitely decorated’ bronze square statue, dubbed ‘Big Mouth’, was unearthed. 

Sanxingdui is a well-known archaeological site and tourist hotspot outside of the city of Chengdu, in the province of Sichuan

Pictured, ‘Big Mouth’ – a typical southern style bronze ware in the late Shang Dynasty. The Shang ruled from 1600 to 1046 B.C. and heralded the Bronze Age in China

The two-foot-tall statue – which is in a typical southern style of the late Shang Dynasty that ruled in the second millennium BC – is decorated with animal and bird heads. 

‘The complete square bronze statue has never been seen before the Sanxingdui site,’ the government of Chengdu says in the post.   

Archaeologists said they found two kinds of silk – one in the ashes of the sacrificial pit a large amount of silk traces and other other wrapped around the bronze ware.  

The function of silk was raised ‘to a metaphysical level’, according to the post, when it was used for sacrificial purposes.

‘Silk serves as a carrier and medium for communication between heaven, earth, man and god,’ it says.

‘The earliest silk must not be used to make beautiful clothes, it must be used to communicate with the world, people and gods. 

A delicate ‘bird-shaped’ gold ornament found during the recent excavations. The findings will help deepen understanding of ‘the cultural relationship between the Chengdu Plain and its surrounding areas’, experts say

‘Bronze Sacred Tree’. The Sanxingdui site has traces of a ‘highly brilliant and splendid bronze civilisation’, according to the government of Chengdu

‘Silk, silkworm, and mulberry embodies the concept of harmony between man and nature with Chinese characteristics.’ 

Sanxingdui was initially stumbled upon in 1929. In 1986, two ceremonial pits containing more than 1,000 items were uncovered during a major excavation, according to CNN. 

One of them items unearthed from the number two sacrificial pit in 1986 was a bronze sculpture of human head with well-preserved gold mask, currently held at Sanxingdui Museum.  

A third pit was found in late 2019, and another five pits were found last year.  

A bronze sculpture of human head with gold mask at Sanxingdui Museum in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. The sculpture was unearthed from the number two2 sacrificial pit at the Sanxingdui Ruins site in 1986

Excavation team pictured here at the Sanxingdui site in Guanghan City, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, March 19, 2021

Archaeologists use their ‘multifunctional archaeological operating system’ on March 20 at the archaeological excavation site of Sanxingdui


The Shang dynasty ruled over the Yellow River Valley in the centre of China between around 1600 and 1046 BC.

They were the second of the traditional Chinese dynasties, succeeding the Xia dynasty and being followed by the Zhou dynasty.

However, it is the earliest dynasty for which there has remained preserved archaeological evidence. 

The elite of the Shang dynasty commonly undertook ritual sacrifices, placing offered remains in burial pits or within the tombs of the dead.

The last Shang Dynasty city was Yin, which was located near what is today the city of Anyang.

Excavations of the Yin ruins have unearthed the early examples of Chinese writing, in the form of inscriptions made on oracle bones.

Oracle bones – of which around an estimated 100,000 have been discovered – were used in divination rituals.

DNA analysis has revealed a similarity between the Shang Dynasty inhabitants of Yin and modern-day northern Han Chinese peoples. 

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