Ancient Tomb Full of 'Soup Bowls' & Food Vessels Discovered in China

A 3,100-year-old tomb filled with bronze "soup bowls" and other food vessels covered in incredible designs has been discovered in Baoji City in Shaanxi province, China.

Also inside the tomb was a badly decomposed body of an unidentified person, the archaeologists said.

"The occupant of Tomb M4 [the name archaeologists gave the tomb] was most likely of elite status, and could potentially be a high ranking chief or the spouse of a chief," wrote an archaeological team led by Zhankui Wang, with the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, in an article recently published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics. [See Photos of the Tomb and Ancient Bronze Vessels]

At least 56 other ancient tombs have been found near Tomb M4, the archaeologists reported. All these tombs were found during excavations that started in 2012, after construction workers uncovered bronze vessels while they were building houses. 

The vessels in Tomb M4 may have been spoils of war given to the person buried in the tomb researchers noted.

Soups on

The food vessels include a four-handled tureen, which was often used to serve soup. The container — dotted with 192 spikes — is decorated with engravings of dragons and birds as well as 24 images showing the heads of bovines.

(Image credit: Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics)

Two wine vessels, each of which is in the shape of a deer, were also found among the food vessels. Engravings showing a variety of complex designs were found on the wine vessels.

The skeleton of the tomb occupant is badly decomposed and archaeologists are not certain exactly who was buried there.

The archaeologists referred to the vessels as "ritual vessels," suggesting that if they were ever used to serve food, it would have been during religious or burial ceremonies.

A time of war

At the time of the burial, the Zhou people were battling the Shang, a rival dynasty in China. The Zhou would eventually defeat the Shang and seize control of their territory.

A few of the vessels hold inscriptions that include the names of different Shang clans. The different clan names "on the bronze vessels suggest that they are originally from multiple clans of the Shang people," the archaeologists wrote in the journal article.

The Zhou may have seized the bronze vessels during the war and given them to the person who was buried in the tomb, the archaeologists said. "After conquering the Shang dynasty, the Zhou king distributed the plundered war spoils to the military officers with great achievements, and these spoils usually included bronze vessels," the archaeologists wrote.

A journal article about the tomb discovery was published in Chinese in 2016, in the journal Wenwu. The article was recently translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

Original article on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.