Ancient Mass Sacrifice, Riches Discovered in China Tomb

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing, China
for National Geographic News
January 29, 2008

A 2,500-year-old tomb containing nearly four dozen victims of human sacrifice has been excavated in eastern China, yielding a treasure trove of precious artifacts and new insights into ritual customs during the era of Confucius, archaeologists say.

The tomb was discovered in January 2007 after police caught looters plundering the site in the province of Jiangxi (see map), said Xu Changqing, who heads the excavation team.

The burial chamber was constructed for the patriarch of an aristocratic family and contains 47 dead buried side by side, Xu said.

Among the most impressive artifacts found in the tomb is a black, gold, and blood-red sword inscribed with pictures of dragons. Xu described it as "the most beautiful and best-preserved sword ever found in this part of China."

Also discovered among the dead were gold and bronze artifacts, along with elaborate silk gowns.

But the most startling discovery was that "most of those buried had been sacrificed to accompany their master into the afterlife," said Xu, a scholar at the Archaeology Institute of Jiangxi.

Some aristocrats arranged for the sacrifice of their servants, their concubines, or others closest to them upon their death so they could travel together into the next life, he said.

"At that time, some ruling elite believed that they could lead afterlives similar to their lives here on Earth," he explained.

The Jiangxi tomb is "one of the most important archaeological finds from this era in this part of China," he added.

Mass Human Sacrifice

The practice of human sacrifice is recorded in China's earliest writings, dating back as far as the Shang dynasty 4,000 years ago, experts say.

Warrior-kings at the time relied on diviners to communicate with ancestors and presented animal or human offerings to plead for victories in battle or for rains to end drought.

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