2021 04 Sanxing 1(Broken mask from sacrificial pit No. 5)

By Elaine Dunn, April 2021

On March 20, the Chinese National Cultural Heritage Administration released important archaeological findings from the 3,000-year-old Sanxingdui archaeological site.  It said the artifacts could provide new insights on the ancient Shu (1250-1100 B.C.state, now part of Sichuan Province, in southwest China.  

On March 20, the Chinese National Cultural Heritage Administration released important archaeological findings from the 3,000-year-old Sanxingdui archaeological site.  It said the artifacts could provide new insights on the ancient Shu (, 1250-1100 B.C.) state, now part of Sichuan Province, in southwest China. 

Sanxingdui, which means “three star mounds” as it has three earth mounds, is located approximately 37 miles from Chengdu and is considered one of the most significant archaeological sites found in the 20th century.  The site was originally discovered by a farmer in 1929.  In 1986, more than 1,000 national treasures were excavated from two sacrificial pits, including gold masks, pottery, jade tablets, ivory and silk relics, bronze and gold wares. From October 2019 to August 2020, archeologists found six new additional sacrificial pits at the site.  Those are now being excavated. To date, an estimated 50,000 items have been unearthed from this site.

One newly unveiled artifact that captured the most attention and creativity of the public is a broken gold mask from sacrificial pit No. 5.  The mask is the largest of its kind found so far, measuring approximately 9” wide and 11” tall, and weighing in at close to 10 ounces of gold of 84% purity.  If complete, the entire mask would weigh in at just a little bit over a pound!

Another mask, unearthed from pit No. 1, is smaller (8.5” x 4.5”) and much lighter in weight (approximately a third of an ounce).  It is  made of gold foil.  It has a raised nose with a sharp edge at the tip, which leads archeologists to believe it might have been attached to the head of a sculpture.  Several of these bronze heads wearing gold foil masks have been unearthed from No. 2 sacrificial pit, including one with “exquisitely hollowed out” eyes and eyebrows.  Experts speculate these bronze heads with masks may represent top-level figures of that period.

People have noticed this and other masks found at the pits have holes in the earlobe, suggesting that perhaps people from the ancient Shu state might have customarily gotten ear piercings.

As soon as images of the latest discoveries were unveiled on March 20, Weibo users had a field day with the incomplete gold mask!  Memes started popping up with the mask superimposed on faces of celebrities, action figures, panda bears, etc.  According to the BBC, the hashtag "#Sanxingdui gold mask photo editing competition" had been viewed nearly 4 million times, and garnered many posts from netizens praising the "stunning" and "beautiful" mask.

Even the Sanxingdui Museum got into the act.  In one of its post on Weibo, it said, "Good morning, we've just woken up, apparently everyone's been busy doing some Photoshopping?"   It even shared some of its own memes, and launched a promotional animated video with a catchy tune starring the broken mask and other artifacts.  The video went viral.

Last August, when a 3,000-year-old clay pig was discovered at the Lianhe Ruins (also in Sichuan Province), social media users compared it to the pigs from the popular video game Angry Birds!

The Sanxingdui site is on UNESCO’s tentative list to become a World Heritage Site, recognized as “an outstanding representative of the Bronze Age Civilization of China, East Asia and even the world.”


2021 04 Sanxing 2

Bronze sculpture with gold foil mask

2021 04 Sanxing 3

Gold foil mask from No. 1 sacrificial pit

2021 04 Sanxing 4

Panda with mask

2021 04 Sanxing 5

Action figure Ultraman with mask

2021 04 Sanxing 6

Museum’s meme with teddy bear outline attached to mask



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