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China’s top six archaeological discoveries of 2021

QIAO YU | 2022-04-07 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: A gold mask unearthed from Pit No.3 at the Sanxingdui site

China’s top six archaeological discoveries of 2021 were revealed at a forum hosted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) on March 18, 2022. These major discoveries were made at the Piluo site, the Huangshan site, the Sanxingdui site, the Guozishan tomb, the Zhengjiahu graveyard, and the Tuyuhun tombs, representing a joyful celebration of modern Chinese archaeology’s centennial in 2021.

Piluo site
The Piluo site is located in Daocheng County, Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, with an average altitude of over 3,750 meters. Various stone artifacts have been uncovered within this site, which is approximately one million square meters, and more than 3,000 typical specimens have been collected thus far. A stratified site with multiple layers of evidence of human activities were revealed in the 200-square-meter excavation area, and more than 7,000 stone artifacts were unearthed. 
According to findings at the site, the seven-layer stratigraphic sequence discovered can be roughly divided into three phases, with the upper layer dated to no later than 130,000 years ago. Stone artifacts and evidence of human presence were found in all three phases. About 20% of stone artifacts are “burnt stones” [stone that was burnt, featuring cracks or color changes] which might be related to frequent use of fire. The semi-circular remains built by gravel indicate human activities such as using fire and making stone artifacts at the site.
The most significant discoveries at the site were Acheulean tools such as hand axes and thin-bladed axes. These are the Acheulean tools that have been found at the highest altitude in the world known so far. They are also the most exquisite and technologically mature Acheulean tools found in East Asia, which ends the debate as to whether advanced Acheulean technology was absent from the area east of the Movius Line, and overthrows the argument that ancient humans in East Asia were only able to make simple and rough stone tools. It is of special significance for understanding the migration and cultural exchanges of ancient people on the east and west of the Eurasian continent.
Huangshan site
The Huangshan site in Nanyang, Henan Province, covers an area of 300,000 square meters. It is the largest Neolithic site in the Nanyang Basin. The remains are mainly building foundations, tombs, and pits. Archaeologists discovered more than 23,000 pieces of sandstone tools used to polish jade, 116 jade artifacts, and over 4,500 pieces of jade materials. Among them, three pieces of gravel painted with sketches of laboring human figures, lying pigs, and Chinese eupatorium (Eupatorium fortunei Turcz.), are viewed as being of great value.
The Huangshan site is a large site of the Neolithic Yangshao Culture (c. 5000–3000 BCE), supported by Dushan jade [one of China’s four most famous jades, mined from Dushan Mountain in Nanyang] and stone resources, while supplemented by jade materials from other places. The discovery of this site provides information on the Neolithic jade handicraft industry system in the Central Plain and the middle reaches of the Yangtze River. The complex of the Yangshao Culture buildings includes jade workshops and the living area at the back of the jade workshops [featuring a separation between the jade workshop area and the living area]. This building complex is one of the best-preserved prehistoric buildings in China, where the architectural techniques and details of prehistoric daily life are preserved almost as well as at Pompeii, Italy. 
Around 5,000 years ago, the people of the Qujialing culture (c. 3300–2600 BCE) centered on the Jianghan area moved northward and occupied the Nanyang Basin. The human bones interred in Qujialing Culture tombs at the Huangshan site are the best preserved in China, reflecting the most obvious social hierarchy. In a large tomb, the owner of the tomb was buried with bows, arrows, and jade yue [a kind of axe]. There are more than 400 pig mandibles piled under his feet. This tomb is one of the highest-level tombs of the same period discovered so far, and it reveals the social status of the tomb owner as a local leader in the Qujialing culture. 
Sanxingdui archaeology
Several major breakthroughs have been made in the excavation of the six newly-discovered sacrificial pits at Sanxingdui in Guanghan City, Sichuan Province, basically clarifying the stratigraphic relationship between the buried artifacts from the six pits. More than 11,000 cultural relics have been unearthed and numbered, including over 2,400 nearly-complete artifacts. Among them, there are more than 870 pieces of bronzeware, 510 pieces of gold ware, over 450 pieces of jade ware, and about 400 intact ivories. Important cultural relics include gold masks, bronze statues, bronze masks, and ivory carvings. The design and decorations of some cultural relics have never been seen before.
This excavation provides detailed information for research on the sacrificial activities and ritual system of the ancient Shu civilization. A large number of cultural relics unearthed in the No. 1 and No. 2 pits in 1986 absorbed certain factors from the Central Plain civilization, the ancient Shu civilization, and other ancient cultures, indicating that the ancient Shu civilization is an important part of Chinese civilization. This conclusion was further confirmed by several new artifacts excavated this time.
Guozishan tomb
The Guozishan tomb is included in the auxiliary remains of the central city site in the Qingjiang Basin [in Jiangxi Province] during the Eastern Zhou period (770–256 BCE)—the city of Zhuwei [dated to over 5,000 years ago]. The Guozishan Tomb is located on the top of a hill about 300 meters west of the site of Zhuwei city. It is perhaps the largest tomb complex from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty discovered in Jiangxi. 
The tomb complex is surrounded by trenches, with a 230-square-meter burial chamber. The coffin chamber is divided into 25 sub-chambers by partitions and columns. The main coffin is a boat-shaped single wooden coffin, a design of coffin for people of high social rank. Although the tomb was robbed long ago, excavation of the tomb has uncovered more than 2,600 objects. The unearthed lacquered se features gorgeous color and elaborate patterns. Another highlight in the tomb was a zheng [both se and zheng are Chinese stringed instruments]. At 2.3 meters in length, it is the longest pre-Qin zheng ever discovered. Archaeologists also discovered exquisite decorations such as “Dragonfly Eye” glass beads, and a jade dragon and phoenix. The general characteristics of the tomb and unearthed inscriptions indicate a close relation between the tomb owner and the royal family of the Yue state [an ancient state in south China, existing from approximately 2032 to 222 BCE].
The Guozishan tomb shows obvious cultural elements of the Yue state. The excavation of this tomb is a breakthrough in the archaeological study of the Yue state and Yue culture.
Zhengjiahu graveyard 
The Zhengjiahu graveyard is located in Hubei Province. At this graveyard in 2021, archaeologists discovered 116 small and medium-sized tombs of the Qin culture dating to the late Warring States Period (475–221 BCE). More than 1,000 burial objects were unearthed, most of which are lacquered woodware, followed by pottery. Among the unearthed objects featuring text, the most valuable is a rare wooden gu [a polygonal wooden artifact] inscribed with a long text, unearthed from Tomb M274. 
The full text on the wooden gu is about 700 characters, written in the typical clerical script of the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE). It is the earliest wooden gu excavated in China so far. The text records the story of a tactician named Tu going to the Qin state to persuade the Qin king to withdraw his armies. This text has never been seen in other ancient texts. It is a new document of political discourse, which enriches the materials of the political history of the late Warring States Period, and provides valuable information for the study of the social ideas of that time. The wooden text also mentions the conflicts among the states of Wei, Yue, and Wu during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) and the Warring States Period, which provide new materials for exploring important historical events during that period.
Tuyuhun tombs
The Tuyuhun tombs found in Wuwei, Gansu Province, in northwest China, have been confirmed as belonging to the royal members of the Tuyuhun Kingdom (313–663) [which later became a part of the Tang Empire (618–907)]. 
Since 2019, archaeologists have discovered items that have never been seen before at these tombs, setting new records in Tang Dynasty archaeology. For the first time, archaeologists discovered remains of Tang Dynasty white wine and a wooden bed of Chinese ethnic-minority or exotic style. It was also the first time they identified the Tuyuhun language. The largest number of the unearthed Tang Dynasty silk fabrics (the most ever found at one time) are well-preserved and diverse in types. The tomb of Murong Zhi, also known as the King of Xi, is the only well-preserved tomb of the Tuyuhun royal family known so far. The unearthed epitaph of Murong Zhi mentioned the existence of the “Great Khan Mausoleum” in Tuyuhun for the first time.
Qiao Yu is an associate research fellow from the Chinese Academy of History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.