The History of the Tombs at Mawangdui
The tombs at Mawangdui, located in a suburb of Changsha in Hunan Province, offer us great insight into the lives and the deaths of the ancient Chinese. Three tombs have been found, containing the remains of Li Cang, the Marquis of Dai; his wife Xin Zhui; and their son. The Marquis had died in 168 BCE, after serving as Chancellor to the king of the Western Han state of Chu.
The graves of each individual were marked by a tumulus with a diameter of about 197ft (60 meters), below which lay a rectangular pit sunk up to 56ft (17 meters) into the ground. “The cypress-wood chambers were encased in thick layers of charcoal and clay to protect the contents from air and damp, thereby preserving the organic remains from decay” (Higham, p.572).
The inner coffin container (guan) consisted of four wooden boxes, each enclosed within the next. The outer wooden coffin container (guo) measures 6.72 x 4.88 x 2.8 meters and made from extremely heavy wooden planks (Guo, p.4). The space of the guo and the guan was divided into four sections for burial equipment. The burial equipment includes the possessions of the deceased, including silk, medicinal herbs, lacquered dishes, musical instruments, bamboo books and specially prepared food, and so on. The origins of this practice can be found back in the Shang period (1600 – 1046 BCE), where we have examples found at Zhengzhou, Henan and Panlongcheng, Hubei (Thorp, p.75-76).
Out of the three tombs found, Tomb 1 is the best preserved. This belonged to Xin Zhui, otherwise known as Lady Dai. One of the most remarkable discoveries, her body was so well preserved that the presence of red blood was found in her veins and the remains of melons that comprised her last meal (Higham, p.572). Archaeologists found ingredients in her tomb for the treatment of heart problems – peppercorns, cinnamon and magnolia bark. It is believed that the Lady Dai died from a fatal heart attack.
Her body was nestled within the innermost coffin; each coffin was elaborately decorated with painted scenes such as clouds, monsters dancing and playing zithers and auspicious animals. Within a compartment beyond her coffins, a tiny theatre accompanied her, along with her couch, walking stick and slippers. Archaeologists also found a wardrobe containing an array of fine silks; one silk gown had sleeves measuring almost 6.6ft (2 meters) long and weighed 49g. Her personal cosmetics were also found, along with a hairpiece and mittens.
The Mawangdui tomb presents the extreme limit in size reached by construction with wooden planks. The Mawangdui tombs reveal a high degree of sophistication in design, planning and construction associated with a highly complex society.
Guo, Qinghua (2004) Tomb Architecture of Dynastic China: Old and New Questions, Architectural History, SAHGB Publications History.
Higham, Charles (2005) The Human Past – Complex Societies of East and Southeast Asia, Thames & Hudson, London.
Thorp, Robert L. (1981) The Sui Xian Tomb: Re-Thinking the Fifth Century, Artibus Asiae, Artibus Asiae Publishers.