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Unearthing story behind ancient gold mask

Updated: 2021-04-14 07:56 ( Xinhua )
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The incomplete gold mask artifact that archaeologists discovered in the No 5 pit at Sanxingdui Ruins in Guanghan, Sichuan province, on Jan 5.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Archaeologists expect the artifact to shed light on early Chinese civilization.

An incomplete gold mask has drawn enormous interest from academics and the public after it was unearthed by archaeologists at the legendary Sanxingdui Ruins site in Southwest China.

In late March, Chinese archaeologists announced they had made some major discoveries at the ruins in Sichuan province, helping to shed light on the unified yet diverse origins of Chinese civilization.

According to the National Cultural Heritage Administration, archaeologists have found six new sacrificial pits and unearthed more than 500 artifacts dating back about 3,000 years.

In one of the new pits, archaeologists unearthed a 286-gram gold mask. It is the biggest gold mask ever discovered at the Sanxingdui Ruins.

"We found the mask on Jan 5 in the No 5 pit," says one of the archaeologists involved in the excavation work. "At first, we only saw part of it, and it didn't draw much attention until more and more gold was revealed."

The archaeologists were surprised when they saw the whole artifact.

"It was a pleasant surprise," says Li Yingfu, a professor with the school of archaeology and museology at Sichuan University. Staff members from the school were part of the excavation team at the site.

But the next challenge was how to unearth the mask carefully and scientifically.

Li says it was not difficult to retrieve the artifact from the pit, as the condition of gold remained stable.

"But no single item is isolated after being buried for thousands of years," Li says. "If we simply extracted the mask out, we could destroy the connections among the buried relics and miss out on the stories behind them."

Li adds that some parts of artifacts might have been lost during the long history at the site, so it was important to preserve and retrieve the remaining parts "as much as possible" so as to understand the lives of the ancient people who lived there.

After extensive discussions, archaeologists decided to carefully remove the already deformed mask on Feb 2 and sent it to a lab to be cleaned and repaired.

But only half of the mask was uncovered, leading to the question: Where is the other half?

Li says the other half could have melted due to burning.

"Gold decorations have quite low melting points. And based on the signs of burning on the relics we found in the pit, we think that the other half could have been burned," Li says. "But who knows? Maybe it is still waiting to be discovered."

The Sanxingdui Ruins were one of the greatest archaeological finds in the 20th century. The site was accidentally discovered by a farmer when he was digging a ditch in the 1920s. Covering 12 square kilometers, the ruins are located in the city of Guanghan, about 60 kilometers from the provincial capital Chengdu. They are believed to be from the Shu Kingdom, which lasted for over 2,000 years and dates back at least 4,800 years.

In 1986, a large number of rare relics was unearthed in the No 1 and No 2 pits, attracting global interest. So far, more than 50,000 relics have been unearthed at Sanxingdui.

Authorities placed the Sanxingdui Ruins under state-level protection in 1988.

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