Archaeologists have unveiled an ancient bronze sword from the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) that is still sharp and glossy after 2,300 years. The sword was discovered in tomb No. 18 in Xinyang city in China’s central Henan Province. It was found still snug in its scabbard inside a wooden coffin. Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology filmed the reveal of the sword and released it on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo.
As the moniker suggests, the Warring States period saw constant wars between the seven leading states of fragmented Zhou dynasty China, plus a handful of smaller states pulled into the conflict at different times. Most of what is today Henan Province was one of the minor states in the struggle, its cities allied with the larger states. By the end of the period, states large and small had all been conquered by one of the leading seven: the Qin state under its king Ying Zheng. When the last competing state, Qi, fell to Ying Zheng, the former king of Qin became the emperor Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of a unified China and founder of the Qin Dynasty.
The sword is a jian, a double-edged straight sword first documented in Chinese sources from the 7th century B.C. They were first made in bronze, then as Chinese metallurgy advanced, iron and steel. The Warring States period was a transitional era for the jian; swords of bronze, iron and steel have been found from the period. Bronze jian were made with different alloys, their properties employed to the weapon’s best advantage. The central spine and core of the sword was made with high copper content bronze, making it pliant but strong and less likely to break. The edges were made from high tin content bronze for optimal sharpness.
If it seems incongruous for a 2,300-year-old bronze sword to be so shiny and sharp after all this time, consider the Sword of Goujian which dates to the Spring and Autumn period (771-403 B.C.). It was found in 1965 in a tomb where it had been submerged in water for at least 2,000 years, and yet, when the blade was unsheathed from its wood lacquer scabbard, it shone like gold and its edge was still keen. Chemical analysis found traces of sulfur which combats tarnish.
The recently discovered sword will be thoroughly studied, documented and conserved. Testing will hopefully answer questions about its composition and confirm its authenticity. There’s a significant market for fake “ancient” jian, and the condition of this sword is so extraordinary there have been some justifiably skeptical reactions on Weibo. Henan Archaeology officials insist it is authentic, discovered undisturbed in its proper archaeological context. Once it is stabilized, it will go on display, likely in the Henan Museum in Zhengzhou.