China’s greatest archaeological finds: from a lost civilisation and the Terracotta Army to the world’s oldest noodles and male beauty products

Holly Chik
·4-min read

Chinese archaeologists recently unveiled a series of ancient artefacts that pointed to the existence of a highly sophisticated civilisation that has since vanished from the historical record.

A massive dig at the Sanxingdui site in the southwest province of Sichuan starting in 2019 discovered more than 500 sophisticated artefacts that were made from gold, bronze, jade and ivory more than 3,000 years ago, including a gold mask that may have been worn by a priest.

While the new discoveries have amazed many, the country is already home to 55 Unesco World Heritage Sites. The discoveries made over the past few decades have ranged from the celebrated Terracotta Army to some of the world’s earliest examples of men’s face cream and noodles – and even a 1,200-year-old divorce agreement.

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Here are some of the most remarkable discoveries.

Terracotta army

The army of life-size sculptures, part of the mausoleum of the first emperor of China, was discovered in the 1970s near modern-day Xian, one of the country’s ancient capitals.

When the emperor Qin Shi Huang died in 210BC, he was buried with an army of over 8,000 warriors and horses made from terracotta to protect him in his afterlife.

Ancient historian Sima Qian said it took 700,000 men 40 years to build the mausoleum which covers over 50 square kilometres.

Earliest form of Chinese writing

Yin Xu, some 500 kilometres (310 miles) south of Beijing, was the last capital city of the Shang dynasty, which is believed to have ruled from around 1600BC to 1050BC in today’s central province of Henan.

It is the first Chinese dynasty for which archaeological evidence exists, including bronze objects that are celebrated for their quality and craftsmanship.

The oracle bones are the oldest known Chinese writing. Photo: Simon Song
The oracle bones are the oldest known Chinese writing. Photo: Simon Song

The 30 sq km archaeological site includes a number of palaces and burial grounds where elaborate offerings such as chariots and bronze ceramics have been unearthed as well as oracle scripts carved on bones, the earliest form of Chinese writing.

A museum at the site is set to open by the end of next year, where jade and bronze wares will go on display alongside the oracle bone scripts, the state news agency Xinhua reported.

World’s oldest bowl of noodles

In 2005, scientists uncovered a 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles that had been covered by flood sediment after a major earthquake in the northwestern province of Qinghai.

The discovery at the Lajia site is the oldest known version of the dish and could be proof that the Chinese were the first people to make noodles.

The remnants of a 4,000-year-old noodle dish found at a site in modern-day Qinghai. Photo: Handout
The remnants of a 4,000-year-old noodle dish found at a site in modern-day Qinghai. Photo: Handout

2,000-year-old liquor

In 2018, archaeologists poured 3.5 litres of a pale yellow liquid from a bronze pot and found that it smelled like wine.

It is not known what the drink was made from, but it was found in a tomb in Luoyang of central Henan province, a city that served as the capital of 13 ancient dynasties.

Some of the ancient bronzes uncovered recently at the site in Sichuan. Photo: Xinhua
Some of the ancient bronzes uncovered recently at the site in Sichuan. Photo: Xinhua

The tomb also contained bronze artefacts, including a lamp in the shape of a wild goose, along with other bronze artefacts and many painted clay pots.

Divorce agreement from the Tang dynasty

A couple from the Tang dynasty, which ruled between 618 and 907, decided to break up and their agreement was found in a cave of Dunhuang in northwest Gansu province some 1,000 years later.

According to a report by People‘s Daily, the “agreement on letting the wife go” read: “Since the couple thinks differently, they can hardly tie the lover’s knot. Under these circumstances, it’d be better for them to go to their respective relatives and return to their original ways of life.

“The man said: ‘I wish that you, my wife, after our divorce, will comb your beautiful hair again and paint your pretty eyebrows, and thus present your gracefulness and marry a man of high social status. Then we will put an end to our enmity and stop resenting each other. Henceforth, we will feel relaxed after separating and will enjoy happiness’.”

Oldest male-use cosmetics

A team of scientists discovered what they believe is 2,700-year-old face whitening cream for men stored in an ornate bronze jar sealed for millennia.

A jar of ancient skin-whitening cream was found in a grave in Shaanxi. Photo: University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences
A jar of ancient skin-whitening cream was found in a grave in Shaanxi. Photo: University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

In 2017, the team discovered the cream in the grave of a nobleman from the Spring and Autumn period (771 – 476BC), a largely feudal time that paved the way for the Warring States era.

The scientists concluded that the six grams of residue found in the Liujiawa archaeological site in the northwest province of Shaanxi was made of ruminant fat mixed with monohydrocalcite, a mineral formed by calcium carbonate and water.

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