Lost Bronze Age Town Full of Treasures Unearthed in China

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
July 17, 2023

For eight decades, farmers in China’s Henan province have been picking up 3,000-year-old Shang Dynasty jade treasures from their fields. Until now, the origin of these artifacts was unknown, but a team of archaeologists have just announced their discovery of an entire lost Bronze Age town containing at least nine elite tombs.

In a recent press conference on the Chinese state-owned television channel CGTN, archaeologists announced their discovery of the complete Bronze Age town. So significant is this find for Chinese cultural heritage that it’s being described as “one of the largest” early Shang Dynasty sites ever discovered, dating back to around 1600 BC to 1046 BC.

According to a report on Live Science the team of archaeologists have recovered hundreds of astonishing artifacts from the expansive Zhaigou Archaeological site in China’s Henan province, about 110 kilometres (70 miles) south of the modern city of Yulin in Shaanxi province.

Life in Prehistoric China

The Zhaigou Archaeological site is an ancient Neolithic settlement that was occupied more than 6,000 years ago. Finely decorated pottery and the tools of early farming have previously been recovered from this site, all of which offer archaeologists valuable insights into the social, cultural, and technological development of prehistoric communities in the region.

Now, a team of archaeologists recently attended a news conference in Beijing by China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage ,  where they detailed their recent finds, which included “bronze drinking vessels, painted pottery, ornaments inlaid with turquoise, and carved jade pieces.” On a larger scale, the researchers also found nine elite tombs, with one containing a bronze piece from a chariot, and it is suspected that the rest of the chariot, and maybe even the remains of the horses that once pulled it, are also interred at the site.

Bronze bird figurine inlaid with pieces of turquoise unearthed from the elite tombs at the Zhaigou site. (Image credit: Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology)

Bronze bird figurine inlaid with pieces of turquoise unearthed from the elite tombs at the Zhaigou site. (Image credit: Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology)

Some of The Wealthiest Tombs Ever Discovered

Xu Lianggao, a researcher with China’s Institute of Archaeology , told the state-owned newspaper China Daily , that local farmers have been unearthing valuable ancient artifacts on surrounding farmlands since the 1940s. Now, the Bronze Age town in China, which the archaeologists think is “spread over 11 hills and covers more than 3 square kilometres (1.2 square miles),” explains the origin of the artifacts that have made their way to the surface over the last 3,000 years.

The archaeologists told the news conference that over the last 1,000 years, 13 ancient Chinese dynasties had their capitals in Shaanxi, but the recent excavations at the Zhaigou Archaeological site have established the town as “the largest in the region.” And this is why the settlement contains “some of the wealthiest tombs yet discovered,” in the region.

Excavating Treasures From “High Social Status” Tombs

Sun Zhanwei, a researcher at the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology, told China Daily, that the Bronze Age town’s centre was made with rammed-earth. This ancient building technique required pressing wet soil into moulds, which were manufactured within artisan workshops and pottery kilns within the settlement.

Sun Zhanwei also explained that since excavations began in 2022, archaeologists have already identified nine aristocratic tombs at Zhaigou. Seven of these elaborate tombs feature rectangular passages, which Zhanwei said “were the reserve of people with a high social status.” And this is supported by the fact that from these nine tombs, over 200 treasures have been recovered.

Bronze star inlaid with turquoise found at the Zhaigou site. (Image credit: Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology)

Bronze star inlaid with turquoise found at the Zhaigou site. (Image credit: Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology)

What Lies Beneath?

Among the most aesthetically pleasing of the 200 artifacts recovered from the nine tombs are: tiny earrings made of gold and jade, an intricately crafted jade bird, and a cast bronze star inlaid with pieces of turquoise. The researchers also discovered a polished tortoise shell in one of the tombs, which they think may have been a tool of divination, used to forge connections between this world and others less known, over 3,000 years ago.

The archaeologists think the Bronze Age town served as the capital of a separate state that was assimilated by the Shang Dynasty, which was based in the city of Yinxu, in Henan. It is speculated that after the regional take over the new town paid tribute to the Shang, and based on the discoveries so far, the archaeologists think that over 11 hills “an entire settlement with tombs, central buildings and artisan workshops” waits to be unearthed.