Mummies are a recurring topic of interest on this site. I’ve had a personal interest in them since I was a kid. I remember getting out the local library’s copy of the Eyewitness book about mummies over and over. Perhaps it was a morbid fascination for a young boy to have, but that’s hardly the only strange interest I’ve pursued over the years. To regular readers, the fascination is pretty obvious. From bog bodies to frontier ruffians to dead philosophers, mummies are a pretty regularly recurring theme here. Today’s post looks at a part of the world that we’ve not explored much so far on this blog: China.
The world’s oldest continuous culture has certainly had its fair share of bizarre and interesting history. One such bit of strangeness was only discovered in 1971, when workers digging a bomb shelter near Changsha city when they stumbled across a massive tomb dating from the Han Dynasty. The more than 2000 year old complex housed more than 1000 artifacts in extraordinary condition, giving archaeologists a snapshot into the lives of the Chinese aristocracy. But the truly remarkable thing about the find lay in the center of the tomb complex. Hidden from the world for more than two millennia, the woman who is now known was the Lady of Dai, would finally see the light of day, and her mummy’s remarkable state of preservation would put even Egypt’s finest mummies to shame.
The Diva Mummy
There could be no doubt that Xin Zhui, the Lady of Dai, lived a life of luxury. Her tomb was stuffed full of luxuries only the wealthiest of Han era China could afford: a wardrobe containing 100 silk garments, 182 pieces of lacquer ware, make-up and other toiletries, and a vast array of delicacies the peasantry of her day could only dream of. To attend to her needs, the Lady of Dai saw that 162 carved wooden figurines representing servants were placed in the tomb as well. Xin Zhui lived the good life, and in her after life she wanted to be certain that the party continued. The opulence of her tomb led to the moniker by which she is best remembered—the Diva Mummy.
This luxury extended to the method by which she was buried. Her body swaddled in twenty layers of silk, immersed in a mildly acidic liquid, and sealed within four nested coffins. The coffins themselves were put in a massive burial vault constructed of cypress and lined with clay. This vault was then packed with 5 tons of charcoal, and then the top of the structure was sealed with 3 feet of clay. The elaborate construction of the tomb effectively made a water tight, air tight space where bacteria wouldn’t be able to thrive. The liquid also likely contributed to the Diva Mummy’s remarkable preservation, although no one is sure exactly how.
As for the mummy herself, at the time of her discovery she looked as if she had died only recently, not 2,000 years ago. Her skin was supple, and her joints flexed freely. Her hair was still intact, up to and including eyelashes and nose hair. Blood still remained in her veins as well—her blood type was Type A.
Pathologists were able to perform an autopsy on the Lady Dai, proving that her remarkable preservation was not merely skin deep. Her internal organs were fully intact, allowing the pathology team not only to ascertain what diseases she suffered from in life but how she died. Their results were telling. Her body was riddled with ailments familiar to any doctor today: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, liver disease, gall stones, and diabetes. She was obese, no doubt due to her opulent lifestyle and lack of exercise. Her lifestyle was likely what did her in—she passed away due to a heart attack at the age of 50. Her last meal was a serving of melons.
The Diva Mummy’s tomb opened a window into a distant part of the past, giving a snapshot of the opulence of the Han aristocracy. But the discovery raised as many questions as it answered. The foremost being: how did the ancient Chinese manage to preserve her body so well? Clearly, mummification was a well developed art in Han China, but how did they develop these skills and what were the specific techniques employed? Obviously their method was not as invasive as that of the Egyptians, who removed many of the internal organs from their dead for separate preservation. It is apparent that the elaborate tomb structure played a large role in her preservation, but the strange liquid in which the mummy was immersed also played a part, although what exactly it was composed of remains a mystery.
Subsequent discoveries have only deepened the mystery. Two other mummies, likely the Lady Dai’s husband and son, were discovered in a similar state of preservation, but the liquid they were immersed in had different chemical properties. There may also be parts of the Han mummification process that are not readily apparent, such substances used in pre-burial rituals that might have had some effect on preservation. Until more discoveries remain, the how of Lady Dai’s remarkable preservation will remain a mystery lost to history.