Category Archives: CHINA

Gold Mask Found in Shang Dynasty Tomb in Central China

Gold Mask Found in Shang Dynasty Tomb in Central China

A gold funeral mask, thought to be more than 3,000 years old, has been discovered in the tomb of an ancient noble in the city of Zhengzhou in central China. 

Gold Mask Found in Shang Dynasty Tomb in Central China
The gold funeral mask was found in the tomb of an ancient noble of the Shang Dynasty. It is thought to be more than 3,000 years old.

It’s one of the oldest gold objects ever found in central China, as contemporary treasures tend to be crafted from bronze and jade, raising questions about possible links to other early Chinese states where gold was more common.

The gold mask is 7.2 inches (18.3 centimetres) long and 5.7 inches (14.5 cm) wide — large enough to cover the entire face of an adult, Huang Fucheng, a researcher at the Zhengzhou Municipal Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology, told the state-owned China News Service(opens in new tab). It weighs about 1.4 ounces (40 grams).

And the South China Morning Post(opens in new tab) (SCMP) reported that the institute’s director, Gu Wanfa, said the gold mask may have symbolized that the deceased had an “imperishable gold body” and was likely intended to keep the spirit of the dead person whole.

Government archaeologists made the announcement of the mask’s discovery during a news conference in Beijing on Sept. 16. Finds from three other ancient Chinese archaeological sites were also revealed at the news conference, but the gold mask is arguably the most striking.

The newfound noble’s tomb dates to the Shang Dynasty, which ruled in the Yellow River valley from about 1600 B.C. to 1046 B.C. — the earliest dynasty ever recorded in China, Live Science previously reported.

The tomb, which covers an area of more than 108,000 square feet (10,000 square meters), contains more than 200 other artefacts, China News Service reported(opens in new tab), including ornate objects of bronze and jade, such as daggers, axes, wine vessels, smoking pipes and goblets. Archaeologists also found plaques inlaid with turquoise and coins made from shells.

Ancient gold

The newfound Zhengzhou tomb is a significant find for research into the burial rituals of the Shang Dynasty, and it may even provide new insight into the origins of Chinese civilization, Chen Lüsheng, deputy director of the National Museum of China in Beijing, told the outlet.

The newly discovered funeral mask, from the tomb at Zhengzhou in Henan province, is older than the gold funeral mask found last year in the Sanxingdui Ruins, an archaeological site in China’s southwestern Sichuan province attributed to the Shu kingdom.

The Shu kingdom in the southwest is traditionally dated as later than the Shang Dynasty in central China. But the two states may have existed at the same time, and archaeologists hope to establish links between them.

The Sanxingdui mask had detailed facial features, but archaeologists said it was attached to a wooden post or mannequin, rather than to an actual dead body. Such masks and other gold artefacts are relatively common at the Sanxingdui Ruins site, but they are rare at Shang Dynasty sites. 

However, it’s unclear whether the younger Sanxingdui mask and the newfound Shang mask have any connection. “Although this gold mask is older than those unearthed from the Sanxingdui Ruins, we still need more evidence and a larger [number] of archaeological discoveries to confirm a direct connection between the Shang city ruins and the Sanxingdui Ruins,” Chen said. 

Early China

The discovery of the new gold mask is “exciting,” said archaeologist and metallurgist Ruiliang Liu, a curator of the Early China Collection at the British Museum in London who wasn’t involved in the Zhengzhou finds.

Liu told Live Science that the ritual system of Bronze Age China was dominated by ritual vessels of jade and bronze — a tradition that was established during the Shang Dynasty when an extensive industry existed to manufacture such objects.

Gold and silver, however, were associated with the pastoralist cultures of the steppes, such as those of Central Asia, northwestern China and Mongolia, he said.

“The discovery of the gold mask in such an early and important context at Zhengzhou raises many intriguing questions,” Liu said. “Where does the raw gold come from? … [and] why did the tomb occupant choose to be buried with gold, while other top elites chose only bronzes and jades?”

One possibility is that the gold had been found in relatively small amounts at Panlongcheng — an important Shang site near the modern city of Wuhan that supplied copper, and tin and probably lead to ancient Zhengzhou — and that it had been worked by local artisans with the techniques they used for other metals, he said.

But another possibility is that the gold was brought from farther afield as an exotic metal, which could indicate a trade network existed during the Shang period between the Yellow River valley and gold-producing regions, such as the Yangtze River valley farther south, he said.

Liu also noted that very few Shang Dynasty archaeological sites near Zhengzhou have been excavated because a large modern city sits above most of them.

“The major part of Zhengzhou archaeology is under the modern Zhengzhou city,” Liu said. “I am sure more will come to light in the future.”

A 70-million-year-old dinosaur baby unearthed in China is one of the best-preserved fossils ever found

A 70-million-year-old dinosaur baby unearthed in China is one of the best-preserved fossils ever found

A 70-million-year-old dinosaur baby unearthed in China is one of the best-preserved fossils ever found

A dinosaur embryo perfectly curled up in its fossilized egg was analyzed by a team of researchers in southeastern China.

The rundown: The fossil, estimated to be between 72 and 66 million years old, belonged to an oviraptorosaur — a beaked, toothless and omnivorous theropod that existed during the Cretaceous Period of what is now Asia and North America.

Researchers published their findings in the journal Science.

The embryo was estimated to be 27 centimetres (11 inches) long from head to tail. Researchers said the dinosaur, which would have fed on plants, would be 2-3 meters (79-118 inches) long had it lived to adulthood.

The embryo was close to hatching as evidenced by its “tucking” posture, a behavior seen in modern birds. Chicks preparing to hatch tuck their heads under their right wing for stability as they crack the shell with their beak.

Modern birds are direct descendants of theropods, which are two-legged dinosaurs. Theropods include the Tyrannosaurus rex, spinosaurus and velociraptor, among others.

What the researchers are saying: Due to its complete structure, the fossil turned out to be one of the best dinosaur embryos found in history, the researchers told AFP. They called the creature “Baby Yingliang” after Yingliang Stone Nature History Museum, its current location.

Our little one has just arrived. Welcome Baby Yingliang, a gorgeous fossil dinosaur embryo preserved inside its egg! You’re looking here at a baby dinosaur, not too long before it would have hatched.

“This skeleton is not only complete from the tip of the snout to the end of its tail; it is curled in a life pose within its egg as if the animal died just yesterday,” study co-author Darla Zelenitsky, an assistant professor of paleontology at the University of Calgary, told Live Science.

Lead author Waisum Ma, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Birmingham, said dinosaur embryos happen to be some of the rarest fossils. Most non-avian embryos are also incomplete, with bones separated at the joints. “We are very excited about the discovery of ‘Baby Yingliang’ — it is preserved in a great condition and helps us answer a lot of questions about dinosaur growth and reproduction with it,” Ma said. “It is interesting to see this dinosaur embryo and a chicken embryo pose in a similar way inside the egg, which possibly indicates similar prehatching behaviours.”

The researchers said the embryo was found in Jiangxi province and acquired by Liang Liu, director of a Chinese stone company called Yingliang Group, in 2000. It was stored and forgotten until museum staff found it some 10 years later, during the construction of Yingliang Stone Nature History Museum, according to CNN.

Embryos that don’t adopt the tucking posture are more likely to die as a result of unsuccessful hatching. The team plans to study the fossil further using advanced scanning techniques, since part of its body remains covered by rock.

White Lead Identified in 2,500-Year-Old Containers in China

White Lead Identified in 2,500-Year-Old Containers in China

White Lead Identified in 2,500-Year-Old Containers in China

Chinese researchers have unearthed bronze containers with lead white residue that the ancient Chinese used for face-whitening makeup around 300 years before the ancient Greeks started making their own.

A team of researchers from the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) and the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology discovered the ancient artefacts at the Liangdaicun site in the city of Hancheng in China’s Shaanxi Province.

In their study published in the open-access journal Humanities and Sciences Communications on Sept. 3, archaeologists noted that the area they excavated in the Liangdaicun site was a nobility cemetery that belonged to the Rui state of China from 770 B.C. until 476 B.C.

Scientists unearthed several valuable artefacts from the cemetery, including the tomb of an aristocrat from the Rui state and miniature bronze containers in her tomb containing synthetic lead white. Upon studying the containers and their contents, the researchers concluded that they were used for cosmetic purposes.

According to their research paper, the team studied the residue using FTIR (Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy), XRD (X-ray Powder Diffraction), SEM-EDS (Scanning Electron Microscopy-Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy), radioactive and stable carbon isotope analyses.

“The results show that these residues were the earliest synthesized lead white in the world to date, which was produced by the precipitation method in solution distinct from the corrosion method practised in ancient Greece,” the scientists wrote.

Before the recent discovery, it was believed that ancient Greece was the first civilization to use synthesized lead white.

The study noted that the earliest known method to obtain lead white was through mining natural cerussite, which was recorded in southern Europe, Egypt, Iran, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley between the fifth and second millennium B.C.

Ancient Greece did not start employing a corrosion process for synthesizing lead white until the fourth century B.C. Mass production and the widespread use of lead white in cosmetics and art across Europe soon followed.

“The mass production of synthetic lead white with lower cost promoted the widespread use of white makeup in China and the Mediterranean World, which triggered a cosmetic revolution and highlighted that the pursuit of beauty stimulated the development of chemistry in human history, especially the earliest wet chemistry practice in China,” the study read.

Although the recent study claims that the use of synthesized lead white was first evident in China, it noted that ancient Greece and China had different approaches.

“The synthetic lead white found at the Liangdaicun site was several hundred years earlier than that of ancient Greece, and both regions have different synthetic approaches, indicating the independent origins and development of lead white synthesis between east and west Eurasia during the first millennium BCE,” the researchers wrote.

They also pointed out that the residue found in the aristocrat’s tomb could be much older than the actual tomb.

“Although the age of the lead carbonates does not fall exactly within the burial date of the tomb, it still reveals the synthetic origin of ancient samples because natural cerussite was observed to have a significantly larger offset,” the team wrote.

New archaeological discoveries provide insight into the Yellow River origins of the Chinese civilization

New archaeological discoveries provide insight into the Yellow River origins of the Chinese civilization

New archaeological discoveries provide insight into the Yellow River origins of the Chinese civilization
The city ruins site in Zhengzhou, Henan Province

A gold “funeral mask” dating back to more than 3,000 years ago was excavated from the tomb of an ancient noble in Zhengzhou, capital of Central China’s Henan Province, officials with China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration announced at a recent press conference.

Different from gold masks discovered at sites from the ancient Shu civilization in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, the mask representing the culture of China’s Central Plains was large enough to cover a person’s entire face. This mask and other relics found in the Shang Dynasty (c.1600BC-1046BC) tomb have shed light on the burial rituals and gold culture of the Shang people.

The tomb yielded more than 200 burial objects.

The ancient city ruins and three other archaeological discoveries revealed at the press conference number among the latest achievements of excavation and research into early city sites along the middle reaches of the Yellow River. All these sites date back to the early stages of Chinese civilization, according to a press release from the administration on Friday.

The city ruins site in Zhengzhou, Henan Province Photo: IC

Rare discoveries

The remains of the tomb of the Shang Dynasty noble, around 10,000 square meters in size, possessed some of the highest quality and most diverse array of burial objects among all the tombs found in the city ruins.

Among all the discoveries from the tomb, which include bronze and jade wares, the gold mask is the most striking finding. The mask is 18.3 centimetres in length, 14.5 centimetres wide and weighs around 40 grams.

Huang Fucheng, a researcher at the Zhengzhou Municipal Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology, said that the size of the mask means it can basically cover the entire face of an adult.

Previously, a large number of gold items were unearthed at the famed Sanxingdui Ruins site in Sichuan Province, but gold wares are rarely found at Shang Dynasty cultural sites in the central plains, an area centred in much of today’s Henan Province and parts of the neighbouring provinces of Shanxi, Shandong and Hebei. Researchers say that these rare discoveries can help expand archaeological research into Shang Dynasty culture.

Chen Lüsheng, a renowned museologist and researcher at the National Museum of China, told the Global Times that the tomb is a significant find for research into the burial rituals and systems of the Shang Dynasty, and because it dates back to a very early period during the dynasty, it can provide new insight into the origins of Chinese civilization.

“Although this gold mask is older than those unearthed from the Sanxingdui Ruins, we still need more evidence and a larger amount of archaeological discoveries to confirm a direct connection between the Shang city ruins and the Sanxingdui Ruins,” Chen said. 

Early beginnings 

Chinese civilization and its origins, especially the study of the Xia Dynasty (c.2070BC-c.1600BC), has been one of the most important topics in Chinese archaeology.

Since 2018, the National Cultural Heritage Administration has been carrying out 11 archaeological projects focusing on tracing and researching the origin of Chinese civilization. So far, more than 200 excavations have seen significant achievements.

The projects focusing on regions along the Yellow River, commonly seen as the birthplace of Chinese civilization, are seen as the highlights of these related archaeological projects.

Besides the Shang Dynasty city ruins in Zhengzhou, archaeologists also excavated the Erlitou Ruins in Yanshi, Henan Province. Dating back to about 3,500 to 3,600 years ago, they are the largest late Xia Dynasty site discovered to date.  

Some 3 million square meters in size, the surviving ruins have revealed the remains of two palaces, a residential area, pottery and bronze workshops, as well as kilns and tombs.

The latest archaeological highlights at the site include the discovery of rammed earth walls on both sides of the roads in many parts of the city and walls dividing several areas outside the palace and workshop areas, showing that people from different classes lived in different parts of the city.

Recent excavations have also unearthed for the first time at the site the remains of pottery, more than 800 pieces of pottery decorated with red paint.

The Bicun Ruins, dating back to 3,700 years to 4,000 years ago, are located in North China’s Shanxi Province. New discoveries at the site, including a complex architecture built of stones that have some characteristics of a watchhouse, demonstrate that the site might be an important customs pass at that time.

Another ruins site in North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous region covers an area of around 1.38 million square meters and has been basically confirmed that it had triple defence systems, including inner city, outer city and barbican. Researchers found two underground passages in the outer barbican of the ancient city.

The excavation works in the inner city area found a large number of remains, such as tombs, housing sites and ash pits, which provide clues for understanding the structure layout of the inner city.

The gold mask excavated from the ancient noble tomb Photo:Xinhua
The gold mask excavated from the ancient noble tomb Photo:Xinhua

Newly found Chinese artefacts illuminate the mysterious ancient kingdom

Newly found Chinese artefacts illuminate the mysterious ancient kingdom

Newly found Chinese artefacts illuminate the mysterious ancient kingdom
A bronze altar was excavated from a sacrificial pit at the Sanxingdui ruins.

A bronze altar and a dragon with a pig’s nose are among a trove of items discovered in sacrificial pits that shed new light on the buried secrets of an ancient Chinese civilization.

Archaeologists on Monday announced the “significant” series of finds at the Sanxingdui ruins in China’s southwestern Sichuan province, according to the team behind the dig and the state-run Xinhua news agency.

A team including academics from Peking University and Sichuan University found thousands of items including intricate bronze, gold and jade items, and what it called the unprecedented discovery of 10 bronzes. Experts say the finds date back 3,000 to 4,500 years.

Discovered in the late 1920s, Sanxingdui is one of the key Chinese archaeological sites. Experts think its treasures once belonged to the ancient Shu kingdom, which dates back 4,800 years and lasted 2,000 years.

The new finds mostly come from what archaeologists call sacrificial pits 7 and 8, the highlight being a bronze box with a tortoise-shaped lid containing jade artefacts, including dragon heads. Traces of silk fabric were found surrounding the box.

A bronze box with jade artefacts inside was among the finds in a sacrificial pit.

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the vessel is one of its kind, given its distinctive shape, fine craftsmanship and ingenious design.

Although we do not know what this vessel was used for, we can assume that ancient people treasured it,” said Li Haichao, a professor at Sichuan University who is in charge of the excavation at pit 7, according to Xinhua.

The role of the pits and their use is contested. One academic, Chen Shen, argued in a 2002 book: “Some belief the pits to be a kind of burial, but without human skeletons; the body might have been reduced to ash as a result of a ritual burning ceremony.”

Burned fragments of ivory were found in one pit and the presence of ash, possibly the remnants of tree and plant matter used as fuel, has led archaeologists to speculate that boxes were placed in the pits to be burned.

In-pit 8, archaeologists found yet more elaborate bronze work, including heads with gold masks, an altar and a dragon with a pig’s nose.

A curious three-part sculpture features a snake with a human head with protruding eyes, tusks and horns. The top part of the head resembles an ancient trumpet-shaped wine vessel.

Ran Honglin, from the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, said some elements of the sculpture were typical of the Shu kingdom, while others were seen in items from the Zhou dynasty.

“These three factors are now blended into one artefact, which demonstrates that Sanxingdui is an important part of Chinese civilization,” he told Xinhua.

“More cultural relics unearthed at Sanxingdui have also been seen in other locales in China, giving evidence of the early exchange and integration of Chinese civilization,” Honglin added.

A bronze head was excavated from a sacrificial pit at Sanxingdui.

“The sculptures are very complex and imaginative, reflecting the fairy world imagined by people at that time, and they demonstrate the diversity and richness of Chinese civilization,” Zhao Hao, an associate professor at Peking University who led the excavation of pit 8, told Xinhua.

The institute said some 13,000 items have already been found at Sanxingdui since excavations began in the 1980s.

The 12-square-mile site was accidentally discovered in the late 1920s by a farmer in Sichuan province who was repairing a sewage ditch. It is considered one of the most important Chinese archaeological finds and one of the world’s greatest discoveries of the 20th century.

Members of China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration have been working at the site in Guanghan city, in southwest China’s Sichuan province.

The finds paint a vivid picture of life in ancient China. Small sacrificial pits and the sacrificed remains of cattle and boars were found alongside reeds, bamboo and soybeans.

Most historians and archaeologists previously thought the birthplace of Chinese civilization was the Yellow River Basin in China’s north. But Sanxingdui’s discovery, and its excavation in the 1980s, challenged those assumptions.

The new finds are expected to be displayed at an exhibition at Sanxingdui Museum, near the city of Guanghan, in 2023.

Mystery has surrounded the fate of the societies that created the artefacts found at Sanxingdui. Evidence shows that at some point, they left the area and moved to the ancient city of Jinsha, near the modern city of Chengdu. Some scholars believe the move was caused by an earthquake 3,000 years ago.

5000-year-old ‘graveyard of giants’ found in a Chinese village

5000-year-old ‘graveyard of giants’ found in a Chinese village

Archaeologists in China have discovered a 5000-year-old graveyard of abnormally tall people who used to live in the country’s Shandong province. The skeletal remains measured over six feet in height.

An archaeological excavation at Jiaojia village in Jinan City’s Zhangqiu District has uncovered 104 houses, 205 graves, and 20 sacrificial pits, according to Xinhua.

Pottery and various objects made with jade were also unearthed during the dig.

The Late Neolithic site uncovered in China dates back to a time when the Yellow River Valley was inhabited by the Longshan Culture, also known as the Black Pottery Culture, which was popular in the region from 3000 to 1900 BC.

The archaeological dig, initiated last year, was led by the University of Shandong.

Grave of giants unearthed in ChinaUNIVERSITY OF SHANDONG
Grave of giants unearthed in ChinaUNIVERSITY OF SHANDONG

An analysis of the skeletal remains suggests the ancient people living in the region were unusually tall, Xinhua reported.

The findings said the tallest individual found in the grave was a male who measured 6’3″.

According to prior studies, the Neolithic males typically measure around 5’5″ and the females around 5’1″. 

The researchers attributed the unusual height to genetics and environment. 

Lead archaeologist Fang Hui, while speaking to Xinhua, said the Late Neolithic civilisation engaged in agriculture, therefore the villagers in the region had access to a variety of nutritious food which could have added to their overall physical growth.

Pottery unearthed in the archaeological dig

“I suspect that this big game specialisation associated with a surplus of high-quality proteins and low population density created environmental conditions leading to the selection of exceptionally tall males,” said the study’s lead author Pavel Grasgruber in an interview with Seeker.

The tallest of the Longshan men were found in tombs, which the Shandong archaeologists said was because of their higher social status and access to better food.

DNA reveals surprise ancestry of mysterious Chinese mummies

DNA reveals surprise ancestry of mysterious Chinese mummies

Cemeteries in the Taklamakan Desert, China, hold human remains up to 4,000 years old.

Since their discovery a century ago, hundreds of naturally preserved mummies found in China’s Tarim Basin have been a mystery to archaeologists. Some thought the Bronze Age remains were from migrants from thousands of kilometres to the west, who had brought farming practices to the area. But now, a genomic analysis suggests they were indigenous people who may have adopted agricultural methods from neighbouring groups.

As they report today in Nature1, researchers have traced the ancestry of these early Chinese farmers to Stone Age hunter-gatherers who lived in Asia some 9,000 years ago. They seem to have been genetically isolated, but despite this had learnt to raise livestock and grow grains in the same way as other groups.

The study hints at “the really diverse ways in which populations move and don’t move, and how ideas can spread with, but also through, populations”, says co-author Christina Warinner, a molecular archaeologist at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts.

The finding demonstrates that cultural exchange doesn’t always go hand in hand with genetic ties, says Michael Frachetti, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “Just because those people are trading, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are marrying one another or having children,” he says.

Perfect preservation environment

Starting in the early twentieth century, the mummies were found in cemeteries belonging to the so-called Xiaohe culture, which are scattered across the Taklamakan Desert in the Xinjiang region of China.

The desert “is one of the most hostile places on Earth”, says Alison Betts, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Here, bodies had been buried in boat-shaped coffins wrapped in cattle hide. The hot, arid and salty environment of the desert naturally preserved them, keeping everything from hair to clothing perfectly intact. Before the latest study, “we knew an awful lot about these people, physically, but we knew nothing about who they were and why they were there”, says Betts.

The mummies — which were buried over a period of 2,000 years or more — date to a significant time in Xinjiang’s history, when ancient communities were shifting from hunter-gatherers to farmers, she adds.

DNA reveals surprise ancestry of mysterious Chinese mummies
The harsh desert conditions preserved the bodies as natural mummies.

Some of the later mummies were buried with woollen fabrics and clothing similar to those of cultures found in the west. The graves also contained millet, wheat, animal bones and dairy products — evidence of agricultural and pastoral technologies characteristic of cultures in other regions of Eurasia, which led researchers to hypothesize that these people were originally migrants from the west, who had passed through Siberia, Afghanistan or Central Asia.

The researchers behind the latest study — based in China, South Korea, Germany and the United States — took DNA from the mummies to test these ideas, but found no evidence to support them.

They sequenced the genomes of 13 individuals who lived between 4,100 and 3,700 years ago and whose bodies were found in the lowest layers of the Tarim Basin cemeteries in southern Xinjiang, as well as another 5 mummies from hundreds of kilometres away in northern Xinjiang, who lived between 5,000 and 4,800 years ago.

They then compared the genetic profiles of these people with previously sequenced genomes from more than 100 ancient groups of people, and those of more than 200 modern populations, from around the world.

Two groups of people

They found that the northern Xinjiang individuals shared some parts of their genomes with Bronze Age migrants from the Altai Mountains of Central Asia who lived about 5,000 years ago — supporting an earlier hypothesis.

But the 13 people from the Tarim Basin did not share this ancestry. They seem to be solely related to hunter-gatherers who lived in southern Siberia and what is now northern Kazakhstan some 9,000 years ago, says co-author Choongwon Jeong, a population and evolutionary geneticist at Seoul National University. The northern Xinjiang individuals also shared some of this ancestry.

Evidence of dairy products was found alongside the youngest mummies from the upper layers of cemeteries in the Tarim Basin, so the researchers analysed calcified dental plaque on the teeth of some of the older mummies to see how far back dairy farming went. In the plaque, they found milk proteins from cattle, sheep and goats, suggesting that even the earliest settlers here consumed dairy products. “This founding population had already incorporated dairy pastoralism into their way of life,” says Warinner.

But the study raises many more questions about how the people of the Xiaohe culture got these technologies, from where and from whom, says Betts. “That’s the next thing we need to try and resolve.”

The Immortal Armour of China Jade burial suits

The Immortal Armour of China Jade burial suits

Threaded hand-crafted from thousands of precious stone slabs with silver and gold during the Han Dynasty about 2000 years ago, ancient China’s jade burial suits were built as armour for the afterlife to prevent mortal decay.

The Immortal Armour of China Jade burial suits

The Jude Burial Suits of China are maybe the most opulent type of burial in history. Ceremonial suits composed of jade and gold thread were the chosen way of afterlife immortality for Han Dynasty China’s royal members.

Small discs strung onto necklaces as emblems of political power and religious authority, or ceremonial instruments like axes, knives, and chisels, were fashioned from nephrite jade.

Jade became associated with Chinese conceptions of the soul, protective properties, and immortality in the ‘essence’ of stone over time due to its hardness, durability, and delicate transparent hues (yu Zhi, shi Zhi jing ye).

With the rise of the Han Dynasty (China’s second imperial dynasty) in 202 BC-AD, 9 AD and AD 25 AD–220 AD, the association with jade’s longevity is clear from the text by the Chinese historian Sima Qian (145 – 86 BC) about Emperor Wu of Han (157 BC–87 BC), who was described as having a jade cup inscribed with the words “Long Life to the Lord of Men,” and indulging with an elixir of jade powder mixed with sweet dew.

Jade articles were first documented in literature around 320 AD, although there is archaeological evidence that they existed earlier than half a century.

Jade burial suit at the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, in Guangzhou

However, their existence was not verified until 1968, when the tomb of Han Dynasty ruler Liu Sheng and his wife Princess Dou Wan was found.

The undisturbed tomb, said to be one of the most important archaeological findings of the twentieth century, was discovered in Hebei Province behind an iron wall between two brick walls and a passageway packed with stone.

They were composed of hundreds of tiny jade plates stitched together with gold thread. There were also jade pieces designed to conceal the eyes and plugs to fit into the eyes, ears, and other orifices.

All in the sake of keeping the bad at bay. Each suite is divided into twelve sections: the face, head, front and rear portions, arms, gloves, leggings, and feet. Liu Sheng’s outfit was very opulent. It was composed of 2498 pieces of jade that were stitched together with 1.1kg of gold thread and took an estimated 10 years to complete. On occasion, the remains were also placed in elaborate jade-covered coffins, which were equally spectacular, having been constructed with hundreds of solid gold nails.

Detail of the hand section of the jade burial suit of Liu Sui, Prince of Liang, of Western Han

Sets of instructions and standards for how the outfits should be made were also discovered. These rules are detailed in “The Book of Later Han.”

However, a study of the suits reveals that they were not always designed to meet the stated standards. The quality of the 15 outfits revealed varies.

The type of thread used was determined by the deceased’s status, according to Hu Hànsh (The Book of the Later Han). An emperor’s jade suit was threaded with gold, lessor royals and high-ranking nobles wore silver threaded jade suits, sons and daughters of the lessor wore copper threaded jade suits, and lower-ranked aristocrats wore silk threaded jade suits.

Close-up detail of a jade burial suit with replaced copper wire in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum.

Emperor Wen of Wei ordered that the production of jade suits be stopped, as they encouraged tomb looters who would burn the suits to retrieve the gold thread in AD 223.

Jade failed to prevent soft tissue deterioration. Nonetheless, because jade is permeable, DNA from the royal pair may be entrenched in the stones for 2,000 years after their deaths, granting them a kind of immortality.