Content warnings: descriptions and images of human remains.
What could we learn from examining the body of someone who lived two thousand years ago? Not their bones, or even a dry mummy, but a solid, flexible corpse. A corpse that could be autopsied like someone who died weeks ago.
Archaeologists had the chance to find out when the body of Xin Zhui, a Han Dynasty noble, was discovered in China. Her body is the best preserved mummy ever found. However, the most revealing hints about her life are gained from studying her remains in the context of her tomb and historical period.
In 163 BCE, the Marquise of Dai, Xin Zhui (辛追), passed away. She had been the wife of Marquis Li Cang (利蒼), a noble who governed an area of 700 households in Changsha, now part of the Hunan Province in central China. A region with a turbulent history, Changsha had attracted Han Chinese migrants from the north who displaced the locals and cleared forests to plant rice. Lady Dai was around 50 at the time of her death and she had outlived her much older husband and maybe a son. She was carefully entombed by her surviving family, both to demonstrate their respect for her and to ensure that her afterlife would be as much fun as her first one.
Many historians think that people during the Han Dynasty believed that a human had two immaterial parts. The mind or soul, the hun, was believed to leave the body and fly like a bird into the heavens, and the body’s energy, the po, remained with the corpse. The po needed to be cared for like the person had been in life, with food, possessions, and replicas of necessities. These replicas are called mingqi, and can represent furniture, animals, and servants.
Lady Dai’s body (and maybe her po) rested with her treasures, her last banquet, and her ghostly household of mingqui for over two thousand years. She was there while the Roman Empire fell, Christianity spread across the Middle East and Europe, and China changed above her. Her tomb was a time capsule.
The Tombs at the Mound
In 1971, workers in Changsha were digging out a space for a hospital’s air raid shelter in a hilly area called Mawangdui (马王堆). The work was tough and dangerous, and landslides sometimes interrupted it. The ground felt unstable in one area, so they took a cigarette break before dealing with it, only to find that the sparks from their matches lit up gas seeping from underground. Locals recognised the ghostly blue fireballs as a sign that there was an ancient tomb nearby (decomposing material releases flammable gas), so contacted archaeologists. Under excavation team directors Hou Liang and Zhou Shirong, and with the help of students from local schools, the archaeologists began to carefully excavate the tombs.
The archaeologists claim that someone found a leaf deep under the in mud as they were digging. Despite being as old as the tomb itself, it was still green. It was a sign of what was to come.
The workers had uncovered the three tombs of Mawangdui. The mistakenly named “King Ma’s Mound” was in fact the Li family’s mound. The three tombs contained Xin Zhui and Li Cang, identified by engraved seals, and an unidentified 30-year-old man who may have been their son Li Xi. The men’s tombs were later found to contain wonderful things, and the young man’s tomb contained many classical texts including the I Ching, the Tao Te Ching, and manuscripts on war, medicine, and sex. However, the matriarch’s tomb outdid the other two, and she was the only Li family member who was mummified. Before the two other tombs were excavated, it was thought that she may be an Imperial concubine, and that the objects engraved with the name of Dai may have been gifts.
Historical events at the time of the young man’s death in 168 BCE suggest that he may have died in battle. He appears to have been buried hastily, and without as much care as the marquise. Li Cang’s tomb had been looted by grave robbers, but it was smaller than his wife’s, and the offerings were more modest. It was much older too, dating to 186 BCE. Interestingly, this suggests that the family’s fortunes had improved in the two decades after Li Cang’s death. Did Lady Dai play a role in that? She would have still been in her 20s or 30s at the time of her husband’s death, so she had plenty of time for ambition.
The Li family are briefly mentioned in historical records, but there is no mention of Xin Zhui at all, so we may never know. After Li Cang’s death, another of his sons became the next marquis and left Changsha to become an official in the capital city of Chang’an. The final marquis after him narrowly escaped a death sentence and lost his title for moving soldiers without permission. The family disappeared from the records soon after, but their ancestors’ tombs under the mound would ensure that the name of Li is known two thousand years later.
Lady Dai’s massive grave contained over a thousand items, and two-thirds of them were related to food. There were thirty bamboo baskets containing food itself, including exotic things such as locusts, swans, and dogs, as well as foods more familiar to Western taste like pears, soy beans, and pigs. A bowl of sliced lotus roots in liquid was found, but despite how careful the archaeologists were being with the artefacts, the roots dissolved into mush soon after it was opened. Her favourite dishes had been prepared for her too, and were stored with bamboo slips describing the ingredients and preparation. There were hundreds of pieces of red and black lacquerware to eat these meals from. In a sweet, personal touch, some were painted with phrases reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland like “please eat”.
Her cosmetics were also stored in lacquerware, including an intricate box containing nine smaller boxes. The everyday life of her household can be glimpsed in her personal items, such as her little red socks and fingerless gloves, and a gauze silk robe that is so fine that it weighs less than a chicken’s egg. One chamber of the tomb represented her sitting room, with mingqi dolls in the form of servants and musicians. The tomb contained no bronze, gold, silver, or jade, in keeping with the Han Emperor Wen’s insistence on a simple lifestyle and austere burial goods, but Lady Dai clearly got away with what luxuries she could have.
The Eternal Marquise
In the middle of all the wonderful treasures was the coffin, consisting of four individual coffins nested like matryoshka dolls. Each coffin was elaborately painted and sealed with lacquer, and the final one was draped in a silk banner depicting funeral and afterlife scenes including mourners at the funeral and Lady Dai walking into the heavens with her cane. This mysterious textile bears the first known portrait in Chinese painting, but its exact purpose is unknown. It may have been used somehow in funeral rituals, or may have served as a guide to the afterlife.
The inner coffin was decorated with feathers, symbolising the transformation of the hun soul into an angelic feathered form that would fly into the afterlife. It contained a silk cocoon soaking in over 21 gallons of an unidentifiable liquid that turned reddish-brown on exposure to air and caused a rash on the hands of the archaeologists. The archaeologists tried to preserve as much of the 20 layers of silk quilts and clothing as possible, but some of it disintegrated as soon as it was touched.
It took a week of work to uncover the body of Xin Zhui, but late one night, they revealed her face. She was pale and withered, but unlike the lotus roots and the silk, she was still solid and she wasn’t going anywhere. Her limbs could be moved, she had eyelashes and fingerprints, and her hair and wig were still on her head. After being buried for two thousand years, her body was undecayed enough to be autopsied like she’d died only days ago. Her organs were nearly in perfect condition, it was possible to discover that her blood type was A and that her last meal included melon because of the seeds in her stomach. Professor Peng Longxiang, who worked on the autopsy, commented that every section of the clinic was involved except the children’s department because she was an adult.
Medical experts were invited to perform her autopsy, and they were able to diagnose the health conditions she suffered during her life. Art on her funerary banner depicted her with a cane, and she was found to have a fused disc in her spine that would have caused severe back pain and difficulty walking. Despite the variety and abundance of food, hygiene must have been poor, as she had tapeworms, whipworms, and other internal parasites associated with dirty hands and undercooked food. It’s sometimes believed that cardiovascular disease is a modern phenomenon, but Lady Dai’s autopsy disproved that. She had gallstones as well, and it’s possible that she died from a heart attack bought on by gallstone pain after eating.
Why was her body preserved so well? No one really knows, but researchers can suggest some factors. Starting from the outside in, the marquise’s tomb was dug deep underground in an inverted pyramid shape. The tomb itself was a huge vault constructed of cypress wood, surrounded with five tons of charcoal. A three-foot thick layer of white kaolin clay was laid on top, before the grave was filled with earth. Inside the vault, Lady Dai’s body was protected by the four sealed coffins and the 20 layers of silk. This complex burial would have ensured that the tomb remained airless and cold to keep bacteria at bay.
The most intriguing possibility is that Lady Dai was intentionally mummified by the fluid found in her coffin. People in the Han Dynasty were interested in the possibility of preserving the dead, and royalty commissioned jade suits in the hope that the jade would do the job. Ancient Chinese texts have also mentioned embalming fluid. Analysis of the burial fluid revealed that it contained acetic acid (an ingredient in vinegar) and alcohol. Both chemicals have preservative properties and could have “pickled” the marquise, but no one can decide if the fluid alone was responsible for the preservation, or if it was even meant to be there. It’s possible that dampness had just seeped into the tomb over the centuries and combined with chemicals from the tomb and soil.
After her autopsy, Lady Dai was placed in a glass coffin to lie in repose in the Hunan Provincial Museum, where she can still be visited. If she was as ambitious as her life story may suggest, she might have been pleased with that. Efforts continue to ensure that she remains perfectly preserved, and a new top-secret fluid was injected into her body in 2003.
The story doesn’t end there though, and the secrets of the ancient morticians may still be uncovered. Since the exhumation of Xin Zhui, at least two (maybe three) more wet mummies have been discovered. Chinese archaeologists call them “Mawangdui bodies”.
I strongly recommend visiting Hunan Museum’s website, particularly the Mawangdui exhibition page and the Mawangdui artefacts page. I also recommend the documentary The Diva Mummy for more about Xin Zhui and the history of ancient Chinese mummies, including autopsy footage and interviews with the archaeologists. There’s also some amazing resources in Chinese, and it’s well worth having a look at some Chinese-language documentaries (like this one) and sites even if you can’t read them. Try entering “辛追” (Xin Zhui) or “马王堆” (Mawangdui) into a search engine.