The Han Tombs at Mawangdui (Spirit-World of a Han Dynasty Noblewoman)

The tombs were discovered in 1972 during construction work at Mawangdui, about 4 km northeast of Changsha, and excavation was completed in 1974. Over 3,000 cultural relics and a complete female corpse were excavated. They were found to be more than 2,100 years old and are now exhibited in Hunan Provincial Museum.

The Han Tombs at Mawangdui (Spirit-World of a Han Dynasty Noblewoman) The Han Tombs at Mawangdui (Spirit-World of a Han Dynasty Noblewoman)

The best preserved, and entirely undisturbed tomb, was that of the Marquess of Dai, or Xin Zui, buried about 180 BC, whose husband was a minor nobleman in charge of administering the region of Changsha. Their son’s tomb was nearby. The tombs were marked only by two earthen mounds above ground; the actual tomb chambers were 16 meters underground, accessed from the north via a sloping passageway. The tomb walls were surrounded by layers of charcoal and pounded clay, which seem to have been instrumental in keeping the moisture level constant and preventing the decay of the corpse and other tomb contents.

The early Han period (early 2nd century BC) tombs of a noble family excavated at Mawangdui are among the most important archaeological discoveries of the past quarter-century. The astonishing state of preservation of one of the tombs, including the mummified corpse of the occupant, and vulnerable materials such as lacquer-painted wood and silk textiles, are only part of the story. The intact contents of the tomb offer unparalleled insights into burial practices and beliefs in the after-life for the far southern culture of early imperial China. In addition, the tomb contains manuscript texts of versions of classic scriptures from early Chinese philosophical schools, shedding important light on the development of early Chinese thought. Further, the tombs contained silk funerary paintings, which offer insights into early imperial period mythologies and cosmological beliefs.

Among many other remarkable finds, a painted T-shaped silk funerary banner, a so-called spirit robe, was laid over the innermost coffin. The banner has a cord, which may indicate that it was carried in a funerary procession before being draped over the coffin. Since silk is a perishable material, the discovery of a silk painting with well-preserved ink and brilliant color designs near 2,200 years old was a major event, matched by only a very few other painted silks of comparable age.

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