Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Ancient Swan Pot Yields Mystery Liquid in Chinese Tomb

Ancient Swan Pot Yields Mystery Liquid in Chinese Tomb

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

In China, archaeologists have found a mysterious liquid in a bronze pot discovered in a Chinese tomb. The pot is in the shape of a swan and it contains an unknown substance that is over 2000 years old. The fluid is being sent to Beijing for further tests and it may reveal some insights into a critical period in the history of China.

The remarkable find was made in the city of Sanmenxia, which is in the Province of Henan in the center of the People’s Republic. During an urban regeneration project, construction workers uncovered a grave and notified the authorities. Archaeologists were investigating this tomb that is over 2,000 years old when they came across the pot filled with a liquid.

Grave goods of the Chinese tomb

The bronze utensil was in the shape of a swan with a curved neck and is somewhat corroded. reports that the team of experts also ‘found a bronze helmet, a bronze basin, swords made of iron and jade’.  The swan-shaped pot and the other items were grave goods and probably deposited in the burial to be used by the deceased in the afterlife.

The swan pot was found with a collection of other grave items. (Image: Sanmenxia Archaeology)

The swan pot was found with a collection of other grave items. (Image: Sanmenxia Archaeology)

Zhu Xiaodong, of the Sanmenxia's institute of cultural relics and archaeology, told Global China Daily that this is ‘the first bronze pot of its kind ever discovered in Sanmenxia’. The swan depicted by the pot is very realistic. The design was identified as a swan based on the length of its beak. Gao Ruyi, a senior veterinarian with a local nature park, told Global China Daily that ‘The design resembles that of a mute swan’.

A 2,000-year-old bronze pot freshly unearthed in central China's Henan Province contained more than 3,000 ml of unknown liquid. (Image: Xinhua)

A 2,000-year-old bronze pot freshly unearthed in central China's Henan Province contained more than 3,000 ml of unknown liquid. (Image: Xinhua)

The object was clearly made by a master craft person. It appears that whoever made it had studied swans and was familiar with them, some 2200 years ago. Zhu is quoted by the Global China Daily as saying that ‘We can boldly estimate that swans may have appeared in Sanmenxia’ over 2 millennia ago. Swans have only been migrating to Sanmenxia, from Siberia, since the 1980s. It appears that almost 2,200 years ago they also visited the area, and this could help researchers to better understand the climate of the region and its environment in ancient times.

Mysterious liquid

When the experts opened the pot, they found something very unusual. The utensil was filled with around 3000 ml (5.2 pints) of a fluid. According to China. Org the ‘unknown liquid in the pot was yellowish-brown in color with impurities’. The archaeologists did not know what the liquid could be, and they decided to enlist the help of colleagues in Beijing. There the fluid will be subjected to chemical analysis and this should help to establish its identity.

The brown liquid will be tested by colleagues in Beijing. (Image: Sanmenxia Archaeology)

Unification of China

A preliminary evaluation of the tomb based on its typology indicates that it dates from the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-207 BC) and possibly the Early Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220). Archaeologists have speculated that the burial belonged to ‘a low-ranking official with a title’ reports China.Org. At this time, Sanmenxia was situated mid-way between the two Imperial capitals of Xi'an and Luoyang and was an important transit hub and administrative center.

The container with the mysterious liquid was interred in the grave, during a crucial period in Chinese history. China had been unified by the Qin Emperor after the Warring States Period. The Han Dynasty who succeed the Qin were central to the development of China as a unified state. They also promoted Confucianism and their reign is seen as something of a Golden Age.

Wine for the afterlife?

The liquid in the pot may help researchers to know more about the funerary customs of the Ancient Chinese in this region. Chemical analysis of the fluid may reveal something of the drink that was consumed by people in Sanmenxia. It is possible that the liquid may turn out to be wine or some other fermented alcohol. Previously alcoholic beverages have been found in the tombs of officials from the Han period in other parts of China. Perhaps it will emerge as an attempt at the legendary elixir of life sought after by the ancient Chinese.

Top image: Nearly 3,000 ml of liquid containing impurities were discovered inside the swan-shaped ritual bronze pot in the Chinese tomb. Source: Sanmenxia Archaeology

By Ed Whelan



That swan jug was pretty. I wish there was a picture of the jade sword.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

Next article