New discoveries at China’s Sanxingdui site reveal secrets of the bronze age

     First discovered in the 1920’s, China’s Sanxingdui site provides one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. Located in China’s Sichuan province, it houses relics of the ancient kingdom of shu, which flourished more than 3,000 years ago before mysteriously disappearing. The site was discovered when a local farmer who was digging a trench stumbled upon the buried ruins. While the site went mostly untouched for the next 60 years of internal Chinese turmoil, it was rediscovered and explored in 1986 when another set of local workers once again stumbled upon the site. Chinese archaeologists swarmed the site, uncovering a vast trove of artifacts, including urns, vases, and striking masks of gold, bronze, and jade. These artifacts were discovered broken and buried within pits, leading to experts theorizing that they held some sacrificial value. Carbon dating placed these objects as far back as 13,000 bc.

(Sanxingdui Mask)

     While excavation and exploration of the site continued for decades, in recent years even more major discoveries have been made. From 2020-2022, Chinese archaeologists uncovered 6 new pits full of over 3,000 new artifacts. These new artifacts help point to the central importance of the Sanxingdui site for the people that lived there over 3,000 years ago. According to Chinese researcher Ran Honglin, the objects “Reflect the early exchange and integration of Chinese civilization”. Among one of the more notable artifacts is a statue featuring a human head upon a snake’s body, with its hands holding a type of ancient drinking vessel known as a Lei. A different type of vessel known as a zun is depicted upon the statue’s head. According to Ran Honglin, the object shows early connections between different cultures. The Human headed snake is typical of other Shu kingdom artifacts, while the two drinking vessels are predominantly associated with the ancient Zhou dynasty of china, possibly showing a connection between the two cultures.

(Sanxingdui Statue)

     One of the major questions still being asked by archaeologists regarding the Sanxingdui site regards why it was abandoned. Archaeological evidence shows that while the Kingdom of Shu remained active for centuries later, the Sanxingdui site was abandoned sometime around 1,300-1,200 bc. Many theories exist to attempt to explain why, from earthquakes, to flooding, to war, however as of yet a consensus has not been reached. What is known however, is where the people of Sanxingdui went. In 2001, another archaeological site was discovered only 30 miles away from Sanxingdui. Known as the Jinsha site, the artifacts discovered there were shockingly similar to those found in Sanxingdui, however the dates ranged from 1,200-500 bc, leading to archaeologists theorizing that after the decline of Sanxingdui, the Jinsha site became the new capital of the Kingdom of Shu.

(Jinsha Site Mask)



Magazine, S. (2022, June 14). Trove of 13,000 artifacts sheds light on enigmatic Chinese civilization. Retrieved November 12, 2022, from 

Weiss, D. (n.d.). Seismic shift. Archaeology Magazine. Retrieved November 12, 2022, from 

NBCUniversal News Group. (2022, June 15). Ancient artifacts found in Sanxingdui, China help illuminate Shu Kingdom. Retrieved November 12, 2022, from 

How artefacts are being protected at the sanxingdui ruins in China. South China Morning Post. (2022, July 26). Retrieved November 12, 2022, from 

More Than TerraCotta, the Tomb Necropolis of China’s First Emperor


     Almost everyone in the world knows of the TerraCotta warriors. Legendary soldiers meant to guard the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. These statues were first discovered in march of 1974 by peasants digging a well, and were later explored and excavated by archaeologists. What many people dont know is that the pits housing the warriors are but one small portion of a much larger necropolis, a tomb city built to be the final resting place of the man who first unified the warring states of China. 

     Located in a massive burial mound near the city of Xi’an China, the vast tomb covers over 20 square miles. It contains an inner city, an outer wall, and miles of various structures built around it. The pits from where the terraCotta warriors were recovered are just one of these structures. They were built to the east of the tomb, to defend it from enemies. Despite the vast wealth of knowledge uncovered from these outer relics, the tomb proper has yet to be fully excavated or explored, due to concerns for the safety of the artifacts still lying within. When the terracotta warriors were first uncovered, a lack of proper conservation techniques combined with the dry air of Xi’an led to rapid damage to the colorfully painted coatings the statues once had. The Chinese government has stated that it will not open up the rest of the mausoleum to excavation until it can be guaranteed that similar damage will not occur to the rest of the tomb. Despite this reluctance, a number of novel archaeology techniques have allowed Chinese historians to gain some level of understanding of what lies inside. For example, analysis of the soil around the tomb has managed to back up the claims of ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian in regards to the massive amount of mercury used within the tomb.

     In ancient China, the element mercury was believed to be an elixir of life. It is even theorized that the death of the first emperor was due to consumption of mercury in the hopes of prolonging his life. As such, mercury played a major role within his tomb complex. According to historical records from Sima Qian written approximately 80 years after his death, the tomb contained massive rivers and lakes of mercury in a facsimile of major Chinese bodies of water at the time. This was backed up by Chinese scientists Guangyu Zhao, Weixing Zhang, Zheng Duan, Ming Lian, Ningbin Hou, Yiyun Li, Shiming Zhu & Sune Svanberg in 2020. The scientists used laser radar scanning of mercury emissions in the soil to determine approximately the amount of mercury lost in the form of vapor over the years. “We obtain a total loss of mercury to air of the order of 1 ton of liquid mercury.” (Zhao et. al 2020). This helps back up the ancient historical claims about the massive amount of the element contained within the tomb.

     Another new method being discussed to increase our understanding of the tomb lies in utilizing cosmic rays. When cosmic rays impact earth’s atmosphere, they break down into smaller subatomic particles known as muons. Similarly to x-rays, muons pass through objects, however they pass through heavier objects like stone and metal slower than dirt or air. Yuanyuan Liu, a scientist working at Beijing Tsinghua university was the one to propose the idea of using these cosmic particles to study the emperor’s tomb. By placing muon detectors underneath the tomb complex, a kind of x-ray can be taken of the inner caverns. While this idea is still theoretical, it shows promise as a non harmful way of seeing the inside of this magnificent construction. The tomb necropolis of Qin Shi Huang is a treasure trove of archaeological and historical knowledge waiting to be uncovered. While many traditional methods of excavation are unusable due to concerns over damage, this provides a wonderful opportunity for new and innovative methods of survey to be used.

Further reading



Zhao, G., Zhang, W., Duan, Z., Lian, M., Hou, N., Li, Y., Zhu, S., & Svanberg, S. (2020, June 26). Mercury as a geophysical tracer gas – emissions from the emperor Qin tomb in xi´an studied by Laser Radar. Nature News. Retrieved September 23, 2022, from 

Chen, S. (2021, December 30). Could cosmic rays unlock the secret tomb guarded by China’s Terracotta Army? South China Morning Post. Retrieved September 23, 2022, from 

Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Qin Tomb. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved September 23, 2022, from