Archaeologists discovered a trove of 13,000 relics, including a turtle shell–shaped box and a sacrificial altar, during an excavation of six sacrificial pits at the ancient site of Sanxingdui, near the city of Chengdu, China. The relics, which would have been offered to heaven, earth, and ancestors by people of the Shu civilization, date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C.E.–1046 B.C.E).
A bronze box with a turtle-shaped lid, dragonhead handles, and bronze ribbons was one highlight of the discovery in pit number seven. The container, which appears to have once been wrapped in silk, holds inside of it a green jade. This is the first time archaeologists have uncovered such an item.
“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the vessel is one of a kind, given its distinctive shape, fine craftsmanship and ingenious design,” said Li Haichao, a professor at Sichuan University, to China’s state news agency Xinhua. “Although we do not know what this vessel was used for, we can assume that ancient people treasured it.”
In the adjacent pit number eight, the team uncovered a nearly 3-foot-tall sacrificial bronze altar, bronze heads with gold masks, a bronze statue of a mythical creature, and a dragon-shaped bronze ware. Along with these relics, they also found ash ditches, architectural foundations, and small sacrificial pits, as well as bamboo, reeds, soybeans, cattle, and boars that may have been sacrificed.
“The sculptures are very complex and imaginative, reflecting the mythological world imagined by people at that time,” remarked Zhao Hao, an associate professor at Peking University, to Xinhua.
Sanxingdui was originally discovered accidentally by a farmer in 1929. It wasn’t until 1934 that the first archaeological excavation was conducted at the site, but work soon stopped due to political upheaval. Scholars recognized the significance of the ruins, which received renewed interest beginning in 1986.
Since 2020, a joint team of archaeologists from Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, Peking University, and Sichuan University, among other institutions, have been excavating six pits at Sanxingdui.
Archeologists found 3,155 relatively intact relics, including more than 2,000 bronze wares and statues in the most recent excavation, according to Xinhua. Overall, since the team started, they have uncovered 13,000 relics total.
These efforts have yielded a number of rare finds, including two millennia-old gold masks within the last year. Given the proportion of the discoveries, UNESCO is currently considering adding Sanxingdui to its World Heritage Site list.
Excavations at the site are slated to conclude for this year in October.