Sanxingdui: Discovery of masks and other relics that could be 5,000 years old causes upheaval in archaeological world

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Photo Credit Nishanshaman – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Chinese archaeologists had always believed that Chinese culture slowly expanded from a point along the Yellow River.  This belief was put into question when two massive sacrificial pits were discovered during a dig near the quiet Chinese village of Sanxingdui, which is situated in the Sichuan province of China. The discovery of these pits has turned the archaeological world on its head.

In 1929, a farmer digging a new well discovered a stash of jade relics, which led Chinese archaeologists to excavate the area around the village. Nothing came of these explorations until 1986, when two enormous sacrificial pits were found. Uncovered from the pits were thousands of pottery, jade, bronze, and gold artifacts that were not seen elsewhere in China before.

This exciting find led to a whole new understanding of the development of Chinese culture. The artifacts were dated as being 3,000 to 5,000 years old, and archaeologists knew they were examining a previously unknown ancient culture that had developed thousands of miles from civilizations of a similar age.

The artifacts showed evidence of having been burned or broken before they were carefully buried; however, this doesn’t detract from the magnificence of the find. The dig uncovered sculptures with animal faces, masks with dragon features, human-style heads with masks on, figurines of animals such as dragons, birds, and snakes all beautifully decorated, as well as a sacrificial altar, a bronze tree, rings, knives, and other decorative items.  The most unusual item found was an eight-foot-tall human figure made of bronze.

The archaeologists were surprised to find numerous bronze masks and human heads that have square faces, huge almond-shaped eyes, long straight noses, and exaggerated ears. These were carbon dated and found to be from the 12th to 11th century BC, and the well developed technology used to create these bronzes astounded the scientists. The ancient Chinese metallurgists knew that adding lead to an amalgam of copper and tin gave them a stronger substance that they could use to create large items such as the human and the tree. One of the masks, the largest ever found anywhere, measured an astounding 1.32 meters wide and 0.72 meters tall. The animal-like ears, protruding eyes, and ornate bodies of these masks demonstrated an artistic style unique from any other found in China.

Unfortunately, no written texts have been located at Sanxingdui to help scientists unravel the mysteries of the city.  This Bronze Age civilization, which is now known as the Sanxingdui Culture, has been associated with the ancient kingdom of Shu; the rich artifacts have been attributed to the legendary kings of Shu. There may be few reliable records that link this civilization to the kingdom of Shu, but the Chronicles of Huayang that were written in the Jin Dynasty, which existed from 265-420 AD, tell of the Shu Kingdom being founded by the Cancong. These people were described as having bulging eyes, a common feature of the artifacts found at Sanxingdui.

This amazing civilization was at its prime around 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, and the city was then completely abandoned. The question that is facing archaeologists now is – why?  A theory has been put forward that a major earthquake hit the region, causing landslides that blocked the water supply to the city, so the residents had to leave their city and move closer to the river. This theory has not been proven.[[[The unearthing of these magnificent items caused a major stir in archaeological circles and will fuel research for many years to come.[

The unearthing of these magnificent items caused a major stir in archaeological circles and will fuel research for many years to come.

[By Ian Harvey

Remains of a Stone Age baby, with its teeth still intact, found cradled in mother’s arm in the Netherlands

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 Researchers working at an archaeological site in the municipality of Nieuwegein, south of the Dutch city of Utrecht, have made an astonishing Stone Age discovery. They’ve found a 6,000-year-old grave containing a baby in the arm of a young woman, most likely his mother.Experts say that this is the oldest infant grave ever discovered in the Netherlands, dating back to the late Stone Age.

IB Times reports that the baby’s remains were only discovered after a closer inspection of the woman’s skeleton was conducted by archaeological consultancy RAAP in Leiden. What was unusual about this particular skeleton was the fact that, unlike other skeletons discovered at the site in Nieuwegein, the right arm of this skeleton had been bent at a strange angle, which led to the discovery of the baby’s remains.

“The posture of the woman’s body did not conform to what we had found so far, that is, bodies whose limbs are placed parallel to the body. We then made the moving discovery that she was, in fact, cradling a little baby,” project leader Helle Molthof told NOS.

The bone fragments that were discovered at the site included a tiny jaw with several milk teeth, which helped scientists to conclude that the baby most probably had died when it was several months old. What makes this find even more unique is the fact that an infant’s skeletal bones would normally perish by now, but in this case, they were preserved due to a layer of clay and peat at the site.

Archaeologists believe that the woman holding the infant was between 20 to 30 years old at the time of her death. Although scientists believe that the woman is most likely the infant’s mother, a DNA test will be conducted to reveal the relationship and will also determine the sex of the baby.

Several more skeletons and many other archaeological finds were unearthed at the site during the past two years. According to Dutch News, over 136,000 well-preserved finds have been discovered in the area of Nieuwegein so far. Archaeologists believe that the discovery of the skeletons can provide vital information about the burial practices of the hunter-gatherer people of the Swifterbant culture, a people that lived in the region thousands of years ago.

Dated between 5300 B.C. and 3400 B.C., the people of the Swifterbant culture inhabited the territory of modern-day Netherlands, where they built their first primitive dwellings along the rivers of the area. These people allegedly lived in small groups of 40 to 80 individuals and their existence depended greatly on nature’s resources.

Similiar to other prehistoric people, the Swifterbant people primarily survived by hunting animals, fishing in the nearby rivers, and farming. However, what distinguished the Swifterbant culture from neighboring cultures is the fact that members of this culture were the first to domesticate animals such as dogs, pigs, sheep, and goats.

As mentioned above, the archaeological site in the municipality of Nieuwegein is rich with artifacts and all of them helped scientists in their research of the hunter-gatherer community that once thrived in this particular region of the Netherlands. Thanks to the discovery of these artifacts, archaeologist now know how the members of the Swifterbant culture lived, what food they ate, what hunting and fishing techniques they used, what their homes were like. But the discovery of the skeletons will surely provide more interesting information about their culture, customs, and traditions.

Prior to the discovery of the skeletons, scientists were unaware of how the people of the Swifterbant culture buried their dead and what happened to their children. Hopes are that this unique archaeological find will help in the further research of the burial practices and will reveal more details about the lives of these people.

 Goran Blazeski