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Relics from Mawangdui Han Dynasty Tombs


The early Han period (early 2nd century BC) tombs of a noble family excavated from 1972 to 1974 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province are among the most important archaeological discoveries of the past quarter-century.

The tombs contained the remains of the Marquis Dai, his wife and son, and their most prized possessions. Over 3000 cultural relics and a well-preserved female corpse were unearthed, attracting wide attention home and abroad.

Among the relics were bright-colored lacquer wares representing the highest level of craftsmanship, fine silks showing amazingly accomplished weaving techniques ,and inscriptions on silk demonstrating knowledge and wisdom of the ancient sages. Of all the remains, the most astonishing was the corpse of Xin Zhui, the wife of the first Marquess of Dai, which was extremely well preserved. Most of the artifacts including the corpses can now be found in the Hunan Provincial Museum.

The eastern tomb, Tomb No.1, contained the remains of Lady Xin Zhui. The western tomb, Tomb No. 2, was the burial site of the first Marquis of Dai, Li Cang. He died in 186 BCE. The Han Dynasty had appointed Li Cang as the chancellor of the Kingdom of Changsha. The tomb was plundered several times by grave robbers. Tomb No. 3 was directly south of Tomb No. 1, and contained the tomb of a man in his thirties who died in 168 BCE. The occupant is believed to be the son of Li Cang and his wife.

Part I. The Mummified Lady

The eastern tomb, Tomb No.1, contained the remains of Lady Xin Zhui in her fifties. Her mummified body, weighing 34.3 Kg at 1.54 high, was so well-preserved that researchers were able to perform an autopsy on her body, which showed that she probably died of a heart attack triggered by an acute cholelithiasis.

She outlived the occupants of the other two tombs. Despite the fact that she had been buried for about 2100 years, her skin and parenchyma were soft and flexible and the joints could still move. Her eyelashes, vibrissa, and left eardrum were also complete.


An analysis of the anatomy shows that the visceral organs were well preserved. The corpse possessed Type A blood, and blood clots were found in the blood veins. In her esophagus, stomach and intestines, 138 1/2 muskmelon seeds were found, indicating that she might have died shortly after eating a melon.

The excellent state of preservation could be attributed to the airtight sealing and the deep burial, which created a low-temperature, anoxic and germ-free environment. In addition, the 80 litres of fluid inside the innermost coffin might have served to inhibit decomposition.

Part Ⅱ A Glimpse of the Silk Kingdom

During the Han dynasty, silk was continuously exported to West Asia and Europe, earning China the crown of “Silk Country”. A variety of silk textiles were found in Tombs No.1 and No.3, including thin silk, fine silk, gauze, damask, brocade and so on. In particular, the four-season clothing unearthed from Tomb No.1 demonstrates both the clothing of the noble ladies and the weaving technique of her time.

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