Archaeologists Uncover 3,000-Year-Old Gold Mask In China Belonging To A Mysterious Ancient Society

Published March 23, 2021
Updated June 4, 2023

Researchers hope that the mask, which was found alongside 500 other ancient artifacts, can answer questions about the enigmatic Shu civilization.

Gold Mask Cleaned Up

Getty ImagesThe mask is believed to have been worn by priests during some sort of religious ritual.

Archaeologists digging at Sanxingdui in China’s Sichuan province struck gold — literally — when they uncovered the fragments of a 3,000-year-old gold mask.

The mask weighs a little over half a pound and is 84 percent pure gold. Found among a substantial cache of 500 objects spread across six “sacrificial pits,” archaeologists suspect that this mask was worn by a priest in a religious ceremony.

The six sacrificial pits, the largest of which is 250 square feet, were first uncovered between November 2019 and May 2020. They’re parallel to two other pits, which were unearthed in 1986.

Archaeologists believe that the site, known as the Sanxingdui Ruins, was a complex once used by ancient Sanxingdui cultures to pray and offer sacrifices.

The other relics found alongside the mask include bronzes, gold foils, artifacts made from ivory, jade, and bone, a wooden box, and a vessel marked with owl-shaped patterns and symbols.

Bronzeware At Sanxingdui

China’s Natural Cultural Heritage InformationArchaeologists unearthed bronze and ivory artifacts at the site as well.

Song Xinchao, deputy director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, said that the newest finds are bound to “enrich and deepen our understanding of the Sanxingdui culture.”

Specifically, researchers are hopeful that these finds may reveal clues about the mysterious Shu State, which was a Bronze Age civilization that ruled the western Sichuan basin until it was conquered by the neighboring state of Qin in 316 B.C.

Little is known about the Shu State at present because its people left no written records — at least, none that have been uncovered. Most information about the state exists only in literature or legend.

In fact, the Shu State might have remained legend if it weren’t for a Chinese farmer who, in 1929, stumbled across jade and stone artifacts in a Sichuan sewage ditch. His discovery eventually morphed into the Sanxingdui Ruins excavation site, where more than 50,000 objects have been found in the decades since.

Footage of some of the objects uncovered at the Saxingdui Ruins.

Now, the newest finds at the Sanxingdui Ruins promise to answer some questions about the traditions of the Shu State.

For starters, archaeologists found remnants of silk in the sacrificial pits. At the time, silk was used for a multitude of purposes, from fans to wall hangings. But silk also played a significant religious role, and China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration noted that the material served “as a carrier and medium for communication between heaven, earth, man and god.”

This suggests that the ancient Shu people wore silk garments during sacrificial ceremonies.

Tang Fei, the Head of the excavation team and chief of the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, noted that the discovery of silk at Sanxingui reveals that the Shu State “was one of the important origins of silk in ancient China.”

Gold Mask In Dirt

China’s Natural Cultural Heritage InformationThe mask was one of hundreds of ancient objects uncovered at the site.

In addition to the gold mask and silk fragments, archeologists are intrigued by a variety of objects that bear a similarity to other items uncovered in Southeast Asia.

According to Zhao Congcang, an archaeologist at Northwest University in Xian, this suggests that the Shu engaged in “broad exchanges with many areas.”

Some even believe that the artifacts uncovered at the Sanxingdui Ruins could challenge currently held beliefs about Chinese history. Modern experts maintain that modern China grew out of civilizations along the Yellow River.

The Shu people, however, clustered around the Yangtze River in Sichuan province, a fertile area separated from the rest of China by mountains. This suggests that China could be the product of various distinct civilizations.

Gold Discovered In China

China’s Natural Cultural Heritage InformationArchaeologists have uncovered 50,000 items from the ruins since the 1980s.

“We are more likely a fusion of different cultures,” Shi Jinsong, the deputy director of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.

As archaeologists continue to dig at the Sanxingdui Ruins, they hope to find more exciting treasures like the golden mask — as well as clues that can tell the world more about the enigmatic people of the Shu State.

After reading about this golden mask discovered in China, check out the incredible artwork uncovered in this 4,300-year-old Egyptian tomb. Then, read about how archaeologists found 3,000-year-old Scottish weapons under a soccer field.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.