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3,000-Year-Old Golden Funeral Mask Revealed in China

A golden funeral mask thought to be more than 3,000 years old has been discovered in a noble tomb in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou.

This artifact has the distinction of being one of the oldest gold objects ever found in central China, as valuable artifacts at that time tended to be made of bronze and jade. It also raises questions about possible links with other early Chinese states where gold was more common.

The golden funeral mask was found in the tomb of an ancient noble of the Shang Dynasty. It is thought to be more than 3000 years old. Photo: China News Service

Huang Fucheng, a researcher at the Zhengzhou Municipal Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archeology, stated that the gold mask is 18.3 centimeters long, 14.5 centimeters wide and weighs about 40 grams. It was also noted to be large enough to cover the entire face of an adult.

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Institute director Gu Wanfa says the gold mask may have symbolized the deceased’s “imperishable gold body” and was probably intended to keep the deceased’s soul intact.

Government archaeologists announced the discovery of the mask at a press conference in Beijing on September 16. Finds from three other ancient Chinese archaeological sites were also announced at the press conference, but the gold mask was arguably the most striking.

The newly discovered noble’s tomb dates to the Shang Dynasty, which ruled from 1600 BC to 1046 BC in the Yellow River valley. This is the oldest dynasty ever recorded in China.

Covering more than 10,000 square meters, the tomb contains more than 200 artifacts, including ornate bronze and jade objects such as daggers, axes, wine vessels, smoking pipes and goblets. Archaeologists also found plaques inlaid plates and coins made from seashells.

Ancient Gold

Chen Lüsheng, deputy director of the National Museum of China in Beijing, says the newly discovered Zhengzhou tomb is an important find for investigating the burial rituals of the Shang Dynasty and could provide a new perspective on the origins of Chinese civilization.

The newly discovered funeral mask in the tomb in Zhengzhou in Henan province is older than the gold funeral mask found last year at the Sanxingdui Ruins, an archaeological site attributed to the Shu kingdom in southwest China’s Sichuan province.

The Shu kingdom in the southwest is traditionally dated after the Shang Dynasty in central China. But the two states may have existed at the same time, and archaeologists hope to establish a connection between them.

The Sanxingdui mask had detailed facial features, but archaeologists say this mask was attached to a wooden post or mannequin rather than an actual corpse. Such masks and other gold artifacts are relatively common at the Sanxingdui Ruins area, but extremely rare at

Shang Dynasty sites.

However, it is unclear whether the younger Sanxingdui mask and the newly discovered Shang mask have any connection. Chen said “Although this golden mask is older than those found in the Sanxingdui Ruins, we need more evidence and more archaeological finds to confirm a direct link between the Shang city ruins and the Sanxingdui Ruins.”

Early China

Archaeologist and metallurgist Ruiliang Liu, curator of the Early China Collection at the British Museum, who was not involved in the Zhengzhou excavations, says the discovery of the new gold mask is “exciting”.

Liu says the ritual system of Bronze Age China was dominated by jade and bronze ritual vessels: a tradition established during the Shang Dynasty, when there was a large industry to manufacture such objects. But gold and silver became associated with the pastoralist cultures of the steppes such as Central Asia, northwest China, and Mongolia.

“The discovery of the golden mask in such an early and important context in Zhengzhou raises many intriguing questions,” Liu said. Where does raw gold come from? …and why did these tomb dwellers choose to be buried in gold, while other high-ranking elites chose only bronzes and jade?” says.

One possibility is that gold is found in relatively small quantities in Panlongcheng, an important Shang region that supplies copper and tin near the modern city of Wuhan.

But another possibility is that gold was brought from further afield as an exotic metal; this may indicate that a trade network existed between the Yellow River valley and gold-producing regions, such as the Yangtze River valley further south, during the Shang period.

Liu also notes that very few of the Shang Dynasty archaeological sites near Zhengzhou have been excavated because much of a large modern city has been submerged.

“A large part of the archaeological remains of Zhengzhou lie under the modern city of Zhengzhou,” Liu said. I’m sure more will emerge in the future.” says.

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