Chinese Archaeologists Find Legendary Sunken Treasure in Sichuan

By Chris Webster, March 22, 2017

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After unearthing approximately 10,000 items of gold, silver and bronze from the muck and mud of a riverbed in Sichuan, archaeologists believe they have finally found Zhang Xianzhong’s legendary sunken treasure. 

Nicknamed “Yellow Tiger” for his prominent jaw and striking yellow complexion, Zhang was a notorious rebel leader of a peasant uprising during the late-Ming dynasty almost 400 years ago. 

According to legend, Zhang had his soldiers load 1000 boats with money and valuables to transport south from the area of present day Chengdu. During the voyage, however, the imperial armada engaged the Yellow Tiger’s fleet in an epic skirmish that ultimately sunk his ships – and all the treasure along with them. 

Sunken Treasure Sichuan
An onsite worker proudly displays a newly unearthed piece of gold from the mud of the Minjiang river.

In addition to the gold and silver, archaeologists also discovered pieces of jewellery, utensils and iron weapons, including swords, knives and spears. Many of the items have already been restored to impeccable condition, thanks to Liu Zhiyan's team at the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute.

According to Li Boqian, an archaeologist from Peking University, “The items are extremely valuable to science, history, and art. They are of great significance for research into the political, economic, military and social lives of the Ming Dynasty.” 

But like any good treasure hunting story (think: Indiana Jones), the plot thickens! The items were also of great interest to local Sichuan gangs and treasure hunters, though their interest was decidedly less academic…

Sunken Treasure Sichuan
A golden imperial edict found at the site has been impeccably restored by experts. 

Treasure discovered in Sichuan
A gold coin unearthed at the excavation area.

Treasure in Sichuan
Jewellery discovered at the site.

In 2010, the government had declared the area as a protected site, and announced plans to excavate. By 2015, however, the local police had arrested 31 suspected bandits and confiscated thousands of coins, along with their diving equipment. 

In October, Meishan police announced that they had found 10 gangs that illegally dug for treasure. They also discovered nine illegal relic trading networks involving 70 people who had traded more than RMB300 million or US44 million worth of booty from the riverbed. Take that, Jack Sparrow! 

When Liu’s team took over, dams were built around the area at the junction of the Minjiang and Jinjiang rivers, about 50 km south of Chengdu. The water had to be manually pumped out every day before the team of experts worked to unearth the precious items from the thick mud of the riverbed. Liu hopes more items will be unearthed before the dig ends when flood season arrives at the end of April. 

Workers toil to dig as many items as possible before the flood season begins at the end of April.

[Images via China Daily, Global Times, ECNS]

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