As the Cold War casts its fearsome shadow across the East, a team of workers in China’s Hunan province is busy digging an air raid shelter. However, as they cut their way through the earth, they stumble upon an elaborate tomb that’s lain buried for thousands of years. Its occupant died at the time of the Han Dynasty, but her body appears to have miraculously escaped the ravages of time.
Back in 1971 political tensions were flaring between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world. Moreover, just as the United States was encouraging its citizens to be prepared in the event of a nuclear attack, China was building air raid shelters in order to protect its civilians.
That year it was decided that a shelter should be built at a hospital near Changsha, a city in southern China. However, when workers began construction, they uncovered an astonishing surprise. Indeed, hidden some 40 feet beneath the city, they came across an ancient tomb.
The following year, some 1,500 students joined archaeologists to complete the mammoth task of excavating the tomb. Amazingly, they found more than 1,000 artifacts buried alongside the occupant. Clearly, they’d discovered the final resting place of an important member of Han Dynasty society.
Inside the tomb, archaeologists found toiletries, makeup, silk garments and almost 200 lacquer-ware items. In addition, they also uncovered a vast army of 162 wooden figurines, believed to have represented the servants who the occupant would carry with her into the afterlife.
Nevertheless, although this was clearly a grand tomb, it was the body buried within it that generated the most excitement. Indeed, wrapped in as many as 20 layers of clothing and bound with silk ribbon was the body of a woman, who is thought to have died in 163 BC.
However, despite having been dead for more than two millennia, the woman’s body was remarkably well preserved. Amazingly, its skin retained some elasticity and moisture, while the muscles were still flexible enough to bend the limbs at the joints.
Moreover, that wasn’t all. Incredibly, the mummified body had also retained its hair, including the delicate strands located in the eyelashes and inside the nostrils. Sadly, this remarkable state of preservation wasn’t to last. Indeed, as soon as archaeologists removed the body from the tomb, its condition quickly began to deteriorate.
Yet despite this, forensic scientists performed an autopsy on the body and were amazed by what they found. Not only was the mummy incredibly well preserved on the outside, but the same also applied to its innards as well. In fact, the organs and blood vessels were still surprisingly intact.
After studying the mummy, many proclaimed that it was the best-preserved example of ancient human remains ever found. However, just who was this woman during her lifetime? Furthermore, how had her body remained so uncorrupted as the centuries had ticked by?
Archaeologists believe that the body in the tomb belonged to Xin Zhu, also known as Lady Dai. In life, she was married to the Marquis of Dai, a member of the Han Dynasty nobility. Moreover, by studying the artifacts found inside the tomb, researchers have been able to build up a fascinating picture of the couple’s extravagant lifestyle.
As well as cosmetics and toiletries, archaeologists discovered an extraordinary collection of textiles buried within the tomb. Among them was a piece of gauze, printed and painted with a floral design. Incredibly, it is thought to represent the earliest example of silk fabric decorated in this fashion.
Intriguingly, archaeologists also believe that music played a significant role in Lady Dai’s life. In addition to a group of wooden figures depicting musicians, a qin with seven strings was also discovered inside the tomb. A musical instrument made from wood, the qin was considered a symbol of refinement.
In fact, some researchers believe that Lady Dai herself might have been accomplished at playing the instrument. She is also thought to have followed a special diet, eating items reserved for members of the upper class of Han Dynasty society.
Because Lady Dai’s body was so well preserved, scientists were able to determine a surprisingly clear picture of the circumstances surrounding her death. They believe that her inactive lifestyle caused her to gain weight, leading to a range of health problems.
One day, aged around 50, Lady Dai sat down to a meal of melon – the undigested seeds of which were recovered from her stomach some 2,000 years later. Shortly afterwards, she passed away due to a heart attack. Her body was subsequently wrapped in layers of silk, placed inside four pine coffins and interred near her husband in a separate tomb.
However, it wasn’t just four coffins that had protected Lady Dai’s body from the elements over the centuries. In fact, once the coffin was safely inside, workers packed some 5 tons of charcoal around the tomb. The vault was then sealed with a 3-feet layer of clay.
In addition, archaeologists also discovered that the tomb had been filled with around 80 liters of a mysterious liquid. When they studied the substance, they found it was slightly acidic and that it contained some magnesium. So, could this have contributed to the body’s remarkably preserved state? Thus far, scientists have been unable to reach any definite conclusions.
What they have been able to determine, however, is that the mummy’s elaborate burial played a significant role in helping to preserve it. Because the tomb was completely watertight, the bacteria that usually cause decay were not able to thrive. Instead, they died off, leaving the remains of Lady Dai intact within a practically sterile environment.
Today, the accidental discovery of Lady Dai’s remains is considered to be one of the 20th century’s most significant archaeological finds. No longer languishing in its underground tomb, her body now resides at the Hunan Provincial Museum in Changsha. There, her remains are the focus of modern-day research into the preservation of corpses – perhaps not the grandest of fates for a woman of such high status in life.