Written by Laura Davies
Whenever mummies are mentioned, most people think of Egypt, but in comparison to China, their efforts are basically human jerky. Squishy organs were removed and Natron, a type of salt, was used to dry out the body to prevent decomposition. The results are shrivelled, fragile and brittle. Mummification of this type did occur in China too. However, ancient morticians also experimented with a few other methods which were remarkably successful and created so-called “wet mummies.”
Instead being removed, the internal organs would be left in the body. As they’d hold a lot of moisture, decomposition would have to be prevented, either with the use of a bacteria inhibiting and cell fixing liquid, formaldehyde style, or by starving the bacteria of oxygen and killing them that way.
One wet technique, also known as the sticky rice soup method, was used in the Song and Ming Dynasties in China to preserve a number of bodies, including the wife of a bureaucrat found in the Sun Siniangzi Mu tomb in Jiangsu province. Fortunately, despite what the name might conjure up in your mind, the mummies were not found floating in a hearty broth. Instead, the graves were sealed using a mixture of lime, clay, sand, and sticky rice water. This would make them airtight, causing bacterial death and impeding decomposition.
The Lady of Dai stands out amongst all other mummies are she was neither dehydrated, nor sealed with soup, and is all the better for it. Her 2100-year-old body is so well preserved that you’d be forgiven for thinking she died last month as opposed to last millennia. Her skin is soft, supple and plump. Her joints are flexible and unaffected by rigour mortis. She has her hair, eyelashes, and nose hairs. Her autopsy team even discovered type A blood in her veins and her last meal in her stomach. If they’d had mobile phones in 150 BC you’d be able to unlock it as she still has fingerprints.
This astonishing level of preservation has led some to claim that she’s not a mummy but actually a cadaver. But, following the broad definition that a mummy is any body which has had it’s soft tissue preserved, either intentionally or accidentally, most are happy to put her in that category. Either way, she’s given archaeologists an incredible glimpse into life during the Han Dynasty and her, fantastically opulent one in particular.
As you may have guessed by the fact that great care was taken to mummify her, she was no peasant. Her name was Xin Zhui, the Lady of Dai, a noble, the wife of the Marquis of Dai, Li Cang, and a very wealthy woman. Reportedly a great beauty in her youth, she lived the good life with parties, music, and feasts. Her tomb was stuffed with over 1,000 artefacts, all preserved in extraordinary condition and providing an incredible insight into the life of a Chinese aristocrat. She had 100 silk garments, designed for all seasons, 182 pieces of lacquerware, including cups and wine jugs, makeup and toiletries to keep her wet mummy looking its best, and 2 figurines of servants and musicians to provide for her and her party guests in the afterlife. All these luxuries have since earned her the title of Diva Mummy, the original party girl.
Of course, all good hosts feed their guests, and those who buried her made sure she was ready to throw a banquet. Sealed with her in her tomb were several dozen pots containing a surprising array of gastronomic delights. She had what you’d expect: strawberries, dates, plums, venison, hare, and beef. But, Lady Dai was a woman of extravagant tastes, so, of course, no feast could be complete without a helping of turtledove, crane, dog, and owl. A world away from the wheat, millet, and soybeans the common people would eat at the time.
Her body reveals she paid for her lavish appetite in several ways, and it ultimately led to her death. Uncomfortably, but not fatally, her exotic tastes or poor hygiene at the time afflicted her with not one, but two intestinal parasites as she shared her delights with both tapeworms and whipworms. She also carried around many gall stones, which would’ve caused a great deal of pain and discomfort.
She was unlikely to have been able to work off the excess calories due to a fused spinal disc, which would’ve been debilitating and required her to walk with a cane at the young age of 50. This sedentary lifestyle, combined with her fatty diet, led to obesity, coronary thrombosis – a blood clot in a blood vessel of the heart, and arteriosclerosis – a condition where the arteries become clogged with fat. These conditions would’ve caused pain and discomfort and various treatments for angina including cinnamon, magnolia bark and peppercorns were found in her tomb.
The Lady spent her last hours, in the summer, eating a large portion of muskmelon, as proven by the 138 ½ seeds found in her stomach. Unsurprisingly, with her cocktail of conditions, it was a heart attack that killed her in the end. This shocked experts at the time who, until her discovery, mistakenly believed diet-related heart disease was a modern affliction. Or at least not one that’s over 2000 years old.
In the Western Han Dynasty, it was believed that the soul was imperishable and would live on in another world after the body died. Burials were therefore elaborate and designed to ensure that a person would have all they needed in the afterlife.
Filial piety, the Confucian virtue of honouring your elders, was important at the time and what better way to show your respect than by providing your parents with a lavish life after death? Of course, during the Han Dynasty, this wasn’t as easy as buying the good flowers and paying extra for the hot options at the buffet. It took years of planning and the enormous undertaking of constructing and stocking a fitting tomb. Not to mention the pressure of choosing the right method of mummification. Do you go for the traditional, brain hooked out through the nose, dehydration technique, or, do you risk it and attempt the experimental ‘wet method’? It’d be great if your mum could make it to the afterlife with all her organs, but is the risk of her ending up as a festering soup worth taking?
Fortunately, in Xin Zhui’s case, it’s likely she had some say in the decision. Her husband, and a 30-year-old man, who was possibly her son, had died before her. They were buried in tombs nearby and morticians had attempted to preserve them in a similar way. Unfortunately, workers managed to damage their tombs while building Xin Zhui’s. This broke their airtight seals and allowed water to damage their bodies. Had this not been the case, three incredibly well-preserved mummies may have been recovered from the site rather than one.
To prepare her for burial, she would’ve been gently washed, but not much more needed to be done to the body itself. Then she was dressed in her funeral attire and wrapped tightly in 20 layers of silk. It’s likely that the silk played a major part in keeping her body so perfectly preserved. There were so many layers it formed a cocoon around her, suffocating the bacteria and preventing her decomposition.
Next, she was placed in a series of four, elegantly decorated, coffins that nested within each other. She was discovered in the innermost one along with 21 gallons of unidentified colourless liquid. No other coffin contained any liquid, and debate still rages about whether this was purposefully added during her burial, produced by bodily fluids, or had seeped in from the surrounding groundwater over the course of 2000 years.
Once she was safely locked away in her layers of coffins, they were placed in her burial vault along with her valuables. Then, the whole thing was surrounded with 5 tons of moisture-absorbing charcoal and encased in 1m of watertight white clay. This is where she remained for the next 2100 years.
While I’m sure she would’ve preferred to remain undisturbed, especially after surviving the grave robbing and looting years that left her unlucky husband without a number of his possessions, it wasn’t to be. During 1971, the cold war was in full swing and tensions were high. China feared attack and its citizens were bombarded with slogans such as “Dig deep holes, accumulate grain and don’t seek hegemony”. On the back of this advice, a hospital near Changsha in Hunan Province instructed workers to dig an air raid shelter in the side of Mawangdui, a hill on the property.
The story goes that, once they’d tunnelled 30 meters, they noticed the dirt beginning to crumble and sat down for a cigarette break. However, as they lit up, air seeping from the ground caught alight, and the sparks from their matches burst into bright blue flames. Terrified, they fled to local officials to report the “Gui huo,” or “ghost flames.”
Another version of the event describes them reaching the clay layer and drilling through it. They noticed a stream of air escaping and decided to light it to see what it was. Of course, it was pure methane, caused by decomposition without oxygen, and a jet of blue fire was sent cascading over the nearby workers, badly burning them. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two. Workers found clay, broke through, and tested the air with a match, but where’s the fun in that?
Appetites at the time were small for archaeological discoveries, and a team was dispatched to excavate the site with minuscule funding, around £644 in today’s money. With an enormous amount of clay and charcoal to be removed, progress was incredibly slow. Fortunately, help came in the form of 1500 high school students who were drafted in to do the heavy lifting and proper excavation work began in 1972.
The work was hard, mud, rain and dodgy scaffolding hampered efforts, but the teenagers were keen. Hou Liang, director of the excavation team recalled some would use their hands to dig and they were left bleeding and covered in splinters from the bamboo baskets used to carry the dirt. After nearly a year of painstaking work, the burial chamber was finally reached. It was covered in bamboo matting each bearing the Chinese character meaning family or home.
The next job was to deconstruct the 6.7 x 4.9-meter wooden chamber and remove the pots containing Xin Zhui’s feast. As one worker lifted the lid of a pot, he exclaimed, “Look at that!” as he’d revealed a broth with perfectly preserved slices of lotus root floating, still intact. Of course, as with all excavations of ancient tombs, once exposed to the air everything starts to very quickly disintegrate and the lotus slices sank and disappeared before their eyes.
Eventually, her coffins were removed by crane and taken away for experts to open. The team extracted coffin after coffin, each decorated with colourful images and mythical creatures until they reached the Marchioness. She was lying in 75cm of clear liquid, which quickly oxidised and turned brown once exposed. She was also encased in her cocoon. While the ancient silk still looked beautiful and held its original shape, it had rotted and formed a soft mass. It had to be cut away from the body.
This might not sound like too much of a problem, but remember, this was a wet mummy. The stench was incredible, and the silk took a week to remove, with each worker having to endure the terrible odour as they slowly cut away each layer.
Once her body was revealed, everyone was stunned. No mummy had ever been found in such pristine condition. The images seen today don’t do it justice as deterioration began as soon as she was uncovered.
Initially, it was difficult to find someone willing to conduct the autopsy. Then Premier Zhou Enlai told experts not to touch ancient treasures unless they could be certain they wouldn’t destroy them. To do so would disrespect their ancestors, and the scientists were scared of the repercussions. Eventually, a junior scientist, Peng Longxiang, volunteered. He later explained his decision with the expression, “Newborn calves are not afraid of tigers.”
Fortunately for him, the autopsy was successful. Not only did he manage to extract all of her organs, including her brain, shrunken but intact he also managed to establish her cause of death, the heart attack.
Footage of the autopsy shocked scientists worldwide. Never before had they seen a mummy whose limbs could be bent without snapping and whose organs remained in the exact location they’d been when their owner died. Instead of months of MRI and CT scans being used to build a picture of the insides of a dried and brittle body, this one was just being sliced open like a standard cadaver.
Surprisingly, even though we know more about her than almost any mummy uncovered, a mystery remains. Scientists have still not been able to figure out what the coffin liquid was or exactly why she was so well preserved.
Some strongly believe that the liquid was just water that’d seeped into the grave and that it played no part in her mummification. This would make some sense as she lay below the water table and both her husband and potential son’s tombs had water damage.
Others, however, are unconvinced as it doesn’t explain why only the innermost coffin contained the liquid, why it turned brown or why it had a different chemical composition to the other tombs. Frustratingly, we don’t know exactly what the liquid is. Scientists have figured out that it’s slightly acidic, which could indicate it was used for its antimicrobial properties but, beyond that, they have no idea.
This leaves the question, did Xin Zhui’s morticians successfully develop a preservation fluid that could keep a body intact for thousands of years? If so, did they use it on anyone else or was it more a throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks type situation? If only they’d passed down the recipe, as since she was extracted from her tomb, she’s been slowly deteriorating.
Efforts have been made to lengthen her preservation. In 2003, scientists at the Hunan Museum developed a secret compound that they’ve been injecting her with in an effort to keep her body intact, but she’s definitely beginning to look worse for wear. What the substance is hasn’t been revealed. Perhaps it’s something similar to the plastination process currently used to preserve bodies for medical research, where fluids and fats are replaced with special plastics. Or maybe it’s more like whatever they’ve been doing to Madonna. Regardless, I’m sure the treatment is available for a few thousand dollars in LA.
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