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  • Writer's pictureMaya Kirby

How Old Is This Mask?

If you like archaeology, you might have heard about the gold mask found recently in China's Sichuan province (or you may have seen the memes). The ornate mask fragment is 85% pure gold, weighs 280g, and measures 22cm by 28cm - it is the heaviest gold mask ever discovered in China. It's also 3000 years old. However, this is not an isolated artefact. Many more items were discovered in several ceremonial pits: burnt elephant tusks, tablets, silk, bronze and jade statues, and other gold masks.

The objects were found at the site of Sanxingdui (三星堆). Its name roughly translates to 'three stars hill'.

For a long time, historians believed that the Chinese civilisation began in the Yellow River basin, with the Xia dynasty (2100-1600 BC), then the Shang dynasty (1600-1045 BC). However, modern discoveries paint a different picture, with evidence of a mysterious ancient culture called the Shu kingdom. Some samples from the Sanxingdui site were carbon-dated to ~1,200 BC - coexisting with the Shang dynasty.

Sanxingdui is already known to be a city belonging to the Shu. According to legend, the kingdom was established by Cancong (蠶叢). He is a semi-mythological character - 'Cancong' translates to 'Silkworms' (probably not his real name, even if he did exist). As the story goes, Cancong showed the people how to make silk, and Sanxingdui became a centre for silk production in the ancient world.

Interestingly, silk has been found in Sanxingdui, alongside objects from different countries of the ancient world. This suggests a thriving trade route... and links to the iconic Silk Road itself.

Cancong was described as having protruding eyes, so the mask above may be a representation of Cancong as a god-like figure. This particular mask is metres wide - look at the person in the background of the picture to get a sense of scale.

Evidence of the mysterious Shu kingdom first emerged in 1929, when a local farmer accidentally dug up a wealth of jade artefacts. Sadly, private collectors bought them, so they have never been displayed in museums. But almost 100 years later, over 10,000 more artefacts have been discovered, and we can paint a clearer picture of life in the Shu Kingdom.

Walls on three sides fortified the ancient city of Sanxingdui, while the wide Yazi River formed the northern boundary. The inhabitants had knowledge of engineering, cosmology, and metallurgy - as demonstrated by their canal system inside the city walls, statues found relating to their star constellations, and by their incredible artwork. A museum now exists on the Sanxingdui site, displaying the statues, pottery, and enormous masks.

Unfortunately, we know little else about the mysterious Shu kingdom - no written language existed at the time to preserve their culture. The only information we have is from the physical objects they left behind. But the strange, otherworldly faces offer a tantalising glimpse into these forgotten civilisations. What other treasures might lie beneath the soil?

Pictures taken from Google Images.

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