Toiling away six feet underground, workers in Taizhou, a city in China’s Jiangsu province, suddenly come across something unexpected. Instead of digging through softer earth, their tools hit something hard. And whatever they’ve struck, it’s big. Could it be some long-lost secret from a bygone age?
Later, a team of archaeologists heave the mysterious object up to the surface. Gingerly, they then peep inside. And there, beneath peeling layers of exotic fabric, an incredible discovery awaits – one that initially poses as many questions as it answers.
This is a story that begins in spring 2011, when road workers in this corner of eastern China were tasked with widening an otherwise unremarkable road. The workers had no idea that they were about to come across such an amazing artifact – and one that certainly required some additional help in order to make sense of it.
It was when the workers suspected that they may have discovered something truly unusual that they got in touch with the local museum, which promptly sent some archaeologists to investigate. And it was these specialists’ job to unravel the subterranean mystery.
The experts concluded that the strange three-layered object was, incredibly, an ancient tomb. This wasn’t, however, just any old burial chamber, but instead one that had a pretty astonishing surprise within its stone walls.
When they lifted the tomb’s lid – becoming the first people to do so for approximately seven centuries – the archaeologists discovered the coffin’s resident. It was lying in a murky liquid amid what looked like bed sheets and was in strangely good condition. Surely she couldn’t have died as far back as hundreds of years ago?
And yes, with its well-preserved skin, eyelashes and jewelry, the occupant – whose facial features were largely intact – was definitely at one time a she. In fact, this deceased woman, buried in her finery, probably dates from the Ming dynasty.
It was this era, which lasted from 1368 till 1644, that oversaw the construction of Beijing’s Forbidden City and the modernization – relatively speaking, that is – of the Great Wall of China. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for such a forward-thinking dynasty, it was also known for its competent governance and general civility.
Furthermore, if a marker of a civilization is how it treats its dead, then it was here that the Ming dynasty truly excelled. When important people died they were buried in tombs that were often elaborate – this discovery, complete with its ancient scripture, exotic fabrics and pottery, being a case in point.
For the archaeologists the find was certainly serendipitous, too, being the first discovery of its kind since 2008. What was unique about this one, though, was just how excellently the deceased had been preserved. It was almost as if she had passed away only days ago.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been possible to determine precisely when the woman lived and died, though the style of her clothing suggests that she does indeed date from the Ming dynasty.
How, then, was this deceased woman able to stay so preserved? Well, some have speculated as to whether the dark liquid inside her tomb was some kind of ancient preservative. This seems unlikely, however; it’s more feasible that it was simply groundwater that had seeped into the tomb over time.
A more plausible theory – one with more scientific grounding – is that environmental conditions played a part. If the temperature inside the coffin reached a certain level and there was the requisite amount of oxygen in the liquid, then bacteria could not have grown.
Indeed, Victor Mair, a Chinese language professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for East Asian Studies, told National Geographic that wet mummies can remain intact because of “the anaerobic conditions of their burials.”
Yet whatever the reason for the mummy’s – almost certainly accidentally – remarkable preservation, its discovery has allowed archaeologists a rare glimpse into a distant civilization.
Take the garments the mummy was buried in, for example, which were fashioned largely of silk rather than cotton. These clothes suggest that whoever this woman was, she was almost certainly high ranking.
Then, of course, there’s the jewelry that was found on the mummy’s person – like the beautiful green ring that had remained attached to a finger on her right hand; a silver hairpin was present, too.
Because the mummy’s preservation is likely to have been accidental, the fact that such artifacts remained in situ is nothing short of remarkable.
In his interview with National Geographic, Professor Mair said he hadn’t come across evidence that suggested the Chinese ever deliberately mummified their dead. As he explained, “Whoever happened to find the right environment might become a preserved corpse.”
In Ming dynasty China, being preserved after death was believed to be indicative of a person having lived a pure life. The Taizhou mummy, then, must surely have been an angel.