The Mawangdui Tombs and the mystery of Lady Dai

Although she had been dead for over two millennia, her skin was still soft to the touch, and she even retained fingerprints.
Jaime Trosper
Lady Dia's corpse full
Lady Dia's corpse

Wikimedia Commons  

  • The Mawangdui Han Tombs host the remains of three nobles from one family from the Western Han Dynasty.
  • Lady Dai – the most well-preserved ancient corpse yet to be discovered.
  • The mystery of how she was so well-preserved is yet unsolved.

The world holds many mysteries. Many of which have been lost to time and written history. Much of what we believe we know about the rise and fall of civilizations, along with the ins and outs of some of the most powerful dynasties to ever arise, was passed down through oral or written history. Naturally, a lot of information has been lost in translation or just plain lost. One of these mysteries pertains to a woman who lived and died approximately 2,100 years ago.

A grand discovery

By pure happenstance, in around 1971, a group of men were excavating a hill of dirt in Changsha, the capital city of the Hunan Province and one of the most populous cities in central China, with the intention of fabricating an air raid shelter for a nearby hospital. The hill seemed like an ideal place for such a structure, but of course, things didn’t go quite as planned. 100 ft (30 meters) into the job, they began to notice something strange: the Earth seemed to be crumbling as they continued to dig. After deciding this was a great time to take a quick smoke break, they noticed something else that was quite strange. The decomposition of organic matter, such as human remains, can release gasses that are often highly flammable. When the men sparked their matches, the flames were abnormal. In fact, they gave off a deep blue color, which prompted them to stop digging any further and report their findings to officials.

Had they kept going, instead of finding rocks or gems, they would have come across something even more precious: what would come to be known as the Mawangdui Han Tombs. As an aside, the name, which translates to King Ma's Mound, was initially thought to be the final resting place of Ma Yin, a King who reigned over the Ma Chu territory, which would eventually become known as Changsha (not to forget modern-day Hunan and the northeastern part of Guangxi), from 896 until his death in 930 AD.

Official excavation began in the early 1970s, and it was quickly discovered that not only did the area host three distinct tombs but that they were much, much older than originally thought. In fact, It’s believed to host the remains of three nobles from one family stretching back to the Western Han dynasty (206 BC – 9 AD): a chancellor who died in 186 BC, known as the first Marquis of Dai, Li Cang (tomb #2); his wife, Xin Zhui (or better known as the Lady Dai [tomb #1]), who died circa 163 BC (the exact date is subject to debate); and a male relative, who may have been their son or the Marquis’ brother, and who is believed to have died in 168 BC (tomb #3).

The Mawangdui Tombs and the mystery of Lady Dai
The Coffin of Xin Zhui (Western Han dynasty) is on display in the Hunan Museum.

Of the three tombs, one of which (the tomb of Li Cang) had clearly been vandalized and plundered by many grave robbers over the duration of its existence prior to its rediscovery, it was clear that Lady Dai’s tomb was somehow different from the rest. Not only was it the largest and most opulent, but no one could have predicted what long-buried secrets were about to be unearthed. 

Engineering the Mawangdui tombs

Every ancient civilization to ever practice mummification has its own traditions and practices – from the design of the tombs to the preservation of the body itself. Following a method originating from the bronze age (it was known to be used during the Eastern Zhou period, which began in about 771 and ended in 221 B.C.E.), all three burial chambers were what we now call shaft tombs. These, in particular, are rectangular, vertical in shape, underground, and were built using a combination of materials and techniques. Think of them as the polar opposites of Mayan-built pyramids.

The three tombs at Mawangdui are rectangular vertical shaft tombs dug deep into the earth. At the bottom of each shaft, there was originally a rectangular wooden burial structure constructed of planks fitted together with a technique still used today called mortise and tenon joinery. This is an extremely intricate way of attaching planks of wood – in this case, cypress or pine – together without the use of nails or an adhesive. This wooden burial structure was compartmentalized. In the center of the main chamber, the mummy was encased in three nesting coffins (or coffins inside of coffins, like nested Russian matryoshka dolls).

The outermost coffin was a plain box, while the three nesting coffins inside were painted with lacquer in black, red, and white. These were made by coating the coffins in multiple layers of resin derived from the lac tree. The lacquering process was a lengthy one, involving applying one layer and letting it dry before adding another. Lacquer work like this was very expensive, as lacquer was more valuable than bronze, but it also offered additional protection from the elements, like water and bacteria. The decoration on the three painted coffins illustrates the journey of Lady Dai’s spirit to the afterlife.

The Mawangdui Tombs and the mystery of Lady Dai
Mawangdui Han Second Coffin from Tomb -1

The rest of the tomb, you could say, was compartmentalized. Beyond the 20 square ft burial chamber, a plethora of invaluable artifacts, including household objects, food, and 162 wooden carvings of loyal servants, were left with the deceased in four compartments on each side of the main burial chamber.

I suppose you can sort of equate the tomb to modern burial vaults, only with extra chambers.

In modern burial vaults, coffins are placed inside the lined and sealed vault, which is usually made of concrete, steel, and polymers. This is done for two major reasons: First, the vault prevents the soil on the surface from sinking in as the weight of the dirt slowly causes the casket to collapse, and it is intended to keep any water from permeating into the casket and out of the vault, which would not only speed up the decomposition process, but it sometimes leads to harmful embalming chemicals, like formaldehyde, eventually penetrating into the groundwater and soil. 

The Chinese shaft vaults work in a similar way. In order to insulate the structure and render it as waterproof as possible, ancient engineers layered both white kaolin clay and charcoal between the chambers. Adding additional protection, the “walls” of the chambers were made using highly compacted earth (including soil, clay, rock, and lime) through a process called the hangtu technique, or “earth ramming.” It was also used on the outermost layer to conceal the tombs beneath.

These things all should have contributed to the preservation of the bodies and the artifacts. However, once the excavation was complete, we would learn that the mummies in the other two tombs weren’t in great shape – perhaps because those tombs had been disturbed by the construction of Lady Dai’s tomb. Lady Dai, on the other hand, would become extremely important.

Lady Dai: an introduction

When archeologists opened up her sealed inner coffin, they were confronted by a woman wrapped in 20 distinct layers of embroidered damask silk shrouds and clothing held in place by silk ribbons. Although she had been dead for over two millennia, her skin was still soft to the touch, with pliable limbs. Her hair – including eyelashes, brows, and nose hairs – was intact, she still had type-A blood in her veins, and she even retained fingerprints. Lady Dai would go on to be given not just the distinction of being one of the oldest preserved bodies ever found in China but also one of the most well-preserved ancient corpses we’ve yet to discover.

The Mawangdui Tombs and the mystery of Lady Dai
Lady Dia's coprse

However, almost immediately after she was exposed to oxygen for the first time in 2,000 years, her body started to break down, which caused some of the visible decay we see now. The clock was running – researchers had to figure out how to best study her remains for clues about the mysterious life of Lady Dai and how to prevent further deterioration of her remains, pronto.

Unlike most of the mummies found in ancient Egypt, Lady Dai’s organs were all intact. Whereas ancient Egyptians typically removed most of the subject’s organs during the mummification process – sometimes leaving only the heart. Lady Dai, in contrast, still contained her organs. This allowed pathologists the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform an autopsy on Lady Dai’s preserved body, ultimately giving us a firsthand glimpse at how the richest of the rich lived during the Han Dynasty.

The autopsy findings

Hunan’s Provincial Medical Institution began the autopsy of Lady Dai on December 14th, 1972. Multiple experts were on hand, each tasked with analyzing different parts of her body. When they cut her open, they were able to discern that she died when she was around 50 years old, but her health was in terrible condition – likely because of her opulent diet and largely sedentary lifestyle. She was essentially a couch potato before being called a couch potato was a thing. However, it wasn’t entirely her fault, as an x-ray revealed that she was limited in mobility, not to mention in what was probably chronic pain due to a fused spinal disc.

That wasn’t her only issue. In fact, it’s rather surprising she lived as long as she did, given the average life expectancy of the times. Ultimately, the team concluded that she likely died of a combination of arteriosclerosis, which is the result of the blood vessel leading to the heart becoming stiff and thick, and coronary thrombosis, a condition in which blood clots form within the arteries of the heart or blood vessels. Combined, they could prevent the heart from receiving the blood and oxygen it needs to pump blood to major organs. This can easily cause a fatal heart attack. Those weren’t her only afflictions either. Other conditions may have hastened her death, including gallstones found to be stuck in her bile duct.

Her bones were found to be affected by osteoporosis, which causes bones to lose mass and become brittle and easily fractured. She was also riddled with parasites, likely from consuming food that was insufficiently cooked. The was also evidence of liver disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Finally, they found a significant amount of mercury, one of the most valuable elements of the times (many believed drinking it in a concoction with other toxic chemicals could create a cocktail of immortality) in her system. Based on the items found in her tomb, it appears eternal life was of great concern to her.

They were even able to determine that the final course of her last meal was muskmelon seeds. Based on where over a hundred seeds were found in her stomach and digestive system, they can confidently say Lady Dai passed away not long after consuming what would become her final meal.

Mysteries persist. What can we learn from Lady Dai?

If you’ve come here hoping to learn exactly why Lady Dai is so well preserved, we, unfortunately, don’t have the answers. Archaeologists have found similar tombs where the occupants were buried in almost the same way, yet they were nowhere near as lively as Lady Dai’s corpse appears now – let alone how she appeared before her body was reintroduced to oxygen and bacteria.

Technically, we shouldn’t even refer to her as a mummy, as most mummies (especially of the Egyptian variety) are dehydrated, desiccated, and hollow – with the interior stuffed with agents believed to aid in the desiccation and decontamination of the body cavity and the process of mummification. In fact, most mummies we’ve found in China weren’t made with intention. It just appears that a perfect storm of things – such as the depth of the burial chamber, its temperature, how thoroughly bacteria was kept out during internment, how well the tombs were sealed, and how well the nested coffins staved off water and bacterial contamination – all contributed to the conservation of Lady Dai.

Not even any known modern embalming techniques, whereby a body is drained of blood and pumped full of chemicals meant to kill bacteria and delay the natural course of decomposition,   can account for this level of preservation. Granted, for most ordinary people, incorruptibility and immortality aren’t in mind in death. Most religions that still exist in the modern-day age do not view death the way it was viewed thousands of years ago. The only purpose of embalming nowadays is to ensure the body remains preserved long enough for funeral services to take place. It isn’t intended to stop the decomposition process indefinitely.

The only thing that really sets Lady Dai apart from the rest is the 20-some gallons of a strange, red-tinged liquid that was of undetermined ingredients and origin. All that is known about it is that it contained mercury and magnesium, was acidic in nature, it oxidized immediately after it was exposed to oxygen, and archaeologists who were tasked with removing her body from its final resting place broke out with a rash after handling her. It’s unknown whether this liquid was intentionally put in her tomb or if microscopic drops of water were able to slither through small cracks in the outer caskets and ultimately make their way into her inner casket. If it was put there intentionally, we can surmise that her body was closer to being pickled than mummified.

What we can learn about the past from Lady Dai:

In order to understand the importance of the artifacts, one must first undo the modern philosophy of  “you can’t take it with you” and understand that back during the Western Han Dynasty, southerners like Lady Di believed that there were two souls or two parts of the soul. One part would remain in the tomb with its body, and that part of it would enjoy these Earthly items. The other half would ascend into the afterlife, where it would reach the realms of immortals.

The Mawangdui Tombs and the mystery of Lady Dai
Funeral banner, painting on silk, from the tomb #1 of Mawangdui Tombs

Specifically, Lady Dai’s spiritual beliefs can be deduced by studying the t-shaped silk funeral banner (which is one of the most important relics out of thousands of artifacts) that was draped on her innermost coffin. The full purpose of such banners is still unknown, but we have some ideas about why elite tombs have such intricately painted banners: Either they are a way to identify the person in the tomb, or they are believed to somehow help part of the soul ascend beyond the Earthly plain, into the afterlife. The intricately painted coffins also offer a glimpse into the beliefs of Lady Dai. However, to truly understand the importance of the banner and the elaborately painted lacquered coffins, we would need a separate article.

Overall, there were thousands of priceless relics found in her tomb and those of her husband and son (or her brother-in-law, some argue), each seeming to serve a specific purpose. Most of them are in spectacular shape, especially given the fact that they had been buried underground for 2,000 years. For instance, one compartment in Lady Dai’s tomb contained what was essentially a dining room, a room with a lavish feast containing meats, fruits, and vegetables cooked with all sorts of different spices and condiments. Most of the food was located on a low Han-era table. Others were stored in lacquered bowls and dishes nearby.

Within the other chambers, archeologists found around 182 lacquered objects, 100 silk garments, the first known pair of bamboo chopsticks, and a mind-blowing amount of many different foods, wines, books, and cosmetics.

The body of Lady Dai now rests in its “forever home” at the Hunan Provincial Museum, where she can still be visited to this day. Some of the artifacts from her tomb take turns visiting museums all across the world.