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Xin Zhui: Lady Dai Of The Han Dynasty, The World's Best-Preserved Mummy

Ancient History | December 5, 2020

The preserved body of Xin Zhui. (Huangdan2060/Wikimedia Commons)

When you think of mummies, you probably imagine the dried-out, linen-wrapped Egyptian mummies that have been unearthed after thousands of years in the hot Sahara sand, but the best-preserved mummy that's been found to date is none of these things. The remarkably preserved body of Xin Zhui, Lady Dai of China's Han dynasty, has offered archaeologists a rare glimpse into the lives of Chinese nobility some 2,000 years ago.

The Discovery Of Xin Zhui

The hills of Mawangdui, near the Chinese city of Changsha, weren't thought to be of any archaeological interest in 1971, when construction of an air raid shelter for a local hospital began. That changed immediately after workers discovered an ancient tomb and alerted the experts, who called in an international team of archaeologists to excavate the site.

What they uncovered was the impressive tomb of Li Chang, the Marquis of Dai, who ruled over the region nearly 2,200 years ago during the Han dynasty. In addition to the Marquis, the tomb held a number of gold and silver figurines, exquisite jewelry, and fine silk garments, but the most impressive find was the Marquis's wife, Xin Zhui. After they unwrapped Lady Dai's body, the archaeologists were shocked to find such a well-preserved corpse. Her skin was soft and supple, her hair and organs were intact, and her skin, joints, and muscles were still pliable. There was even blood in her veins. Her face was grotesquely swollen and misshapen, but you can't have everything.

Artistic reconstruction of Xin Zhui. (Flazaza/Wikimedia Commons)

Who Was Xin Zhui?

The remarkable preservation of Xin Zhui's body allowed researchers to conduct an autopsy, which is already an astounding feat to perform on a 2,100-year-old corpse, but the information they gleaned from the autopsy about the lifestyles of ancient Chinese nobility proved to be invaluable. There was all the usual stuff—she had type A blood, was about 50 years old, had diabetes, and ate melons as her final meal—but also evidence of a life marked by idleness and luxury. Her diet was rich and unhealthy, and she sat for long periods of time, probably listening to musicians play. (Hundreds of silver and gold figurines of musicians and musical instruments were buried with her, leading researchers to conclude that Lady Dai was a patron of the arts.) A depiction of her on a funeral banner includes the cane she used to walk.

In fact, Xin Zhui's sedentary and indulgent lifestyle probably contributed to her poor health and eventual death. In addition to diabetes, she suffered from joint pain and coronary thrombosis and died of a sudden heart attack. The apparent state of her health is ironic, as it appeared to be a topic of interest for her. Books and tablets on health, nutrition, and longevity were found in her tomb, alongside information on Chinese herbal treatments for conditions such as asthma, migraines, coughs, and erectile dysfunction.

Corpse of Lady Dai, Xin Zhui. (Gary Todd/Wikimedia Commons)

How Was Xin Zhui So Well Preserved?

Egyptian mummies were preserved by draining their bodies of all fluid and drying out their tissue with salt prior to wrapping and burial, but researchers believe Xin Zhui's body was likely submerged in some type of acidic liquid that inhibited bacterial growth and prevented decomposition. Traces of mercury were also found on her skin, which would have had a similar effect. Her body was then wrapped tightly in 20 layers of silk and placed in a series of four coffins, all nested within each other, each filled with charcoal and tightly sealed with clay. Archaeologists believe that this kept out water and air that would have led to decomposition.

Tags: ancient china | ancient history | mummies

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.