A bronze altar and a dragon with a pig's nose 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 China's southwestern Sichuan province, according to the team behind the dig 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 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 think its treasures once belonged to the ancient Shu kingdom, which dates back 4,800 years and lasted 2,000 years.
The new finds mostly come from what archaeologists call sacrificial pits 7 and 8, the highlight being a bronze box with a tortoise-shaped lid containing jade artifacts, including dragon heads. Traces of silk fabric were found surrounding the box.
“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the vessel is one of its kind, given its distinctive shape, fine craftsmanship and ingenious design. Although we do not know what this vessel was used for, we can assume that ancient people treasured it,” said Li Haichao, a professor at Sichuan University who is in charge of the excavation at pit 7, according to Xinhua.
The role of the pits and their use is contested. One academic, Chen Shen, argued in a 2002 book: “Some believe the pits to be a kind of burial, but without human skeletons; the body might have been reduced to ash as a result of a ritual burning ceremony.”
Burned fragments of ivory were found in one pit and the presence of ash, possibly the remnants of tree and plant matter used as fuel, has led archaeologists to speculate that boxes were placed in the pits to be burned.
In pit 8, archaeologists found yet more elaborate bronze work, including heads with gold masks, an altar and a dragon with a pig's nose.
A curious three-part sculpture features a snake with a human head with protruding eyes, tusks and horns. The top part of the head resembles an ancient trumpet-shaped wine vessel.
Ran Honglin, from the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, said some elements of the sculpture were typical of the Shu kingdom, while others were seen in 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 at Sanxingdui have also been seen in other locales in China, giving evidence of the early exchange and integration of Chinese civilization,” Honglin added.
“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,” Zhao Hao, an associate professor at Peking University who led the excavation of pit 8, told 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 the most important Chinese archaeological finds and one of the world’s greatest discoveries of the 20th century.
The finds paint a vivid picture of life in ancient China. Small sacrificial pits and the sacrificed remains of cattle and boars were found alongside reeds, bamboo and soy beans.
Most historians and archaeologists previously thought the birthplace of Chinese civilization was the Yellow River Basin in China’s north. But Sanxingdui's discovery, and its excavation in the 1980s, challenged those assumptions.
The new finds are expected to be displayed at an exhibition at Sanxingdui Museum, near the city of Guanghan, 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 the move was caused by an earthquake 3,000 years ago.