Ancient Snake-Shaped Artifact Found in Taiwan Was Part of Shamanic Rituals

Archaeologists in Taiwan have unearthed a snake-shaped piece of pottery delicately molded about 4,000 years ago and likely used by a prehistoric shaman in ancient rituals.

The artifact was found among sand dunes near the island’s northwest coast by researchers from Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University. Associate Professor Hung-Lin Chiu, who made the discovery in 2023, told Hyperallergic that the piece is likely a detached handle that was shaped and hardened at a low temperature.

It “has a vivid figure, like a cobra, with its head raised and the skin folds of its head and neck bulging,” Chiu said. “We believe this incomplete artifact may have been pottery used for ritual purposes.”

Carbon dating revealed the piece was created during the Middle Neolithic Age. It’s not the first prehistoric artifact to be found in the area: As indicated by a previously discovered collection of 3,000-year-old stone fragments, the site, known as Baishatun in the Guanyin District, was also once home to a major stone tool manufacturing site.

Unlike a stone tool, though, the newly discovered artifact suggests little utilitarianism. Instead, its carefully crafted shape represents ceremony and lore. Researchers believe the handle may have been attached to a sacrificial vessel used in rituals performed by tribal shamans long ago. 

“Ancient societies incorporated animal images into ritual sacrificial vessels to demonstrate their beliefs and cognitive systems,” Chiu said.

When it comes to snakes, this zoological allegory isn’t restricted to East Asia. From Mesoamerica’s snakeline deity Quetzalcoatl to the Garden of Eden’s reptilian tempter, snakes have long held symbolic meaning in religion and mythology worldwide. The ouroboros — a Greek name for the image of a serpent eating its own tail — spans iconography from Ancient Egypt, Hinduism, and European Renaissance alchemy. And in recent years, a carved wooden snake found in Finland was determined to be a 4,400-year-old staff that, like the Taiwanese handle, belonged to a shaman.

For the ancient people who used the recently unearthed snake-shaped handle, serpents represented “the bridge between heaven and man,” Chiu said. The animals’ ecdysis process — in which they slough off their outermost layer of skin — symbolized “the transformation of life and death, or the reproduction and transformation of life.”

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