This Amazingly Well-Preserved Mummy Told Many Secrets... and Didn't Come From Egypt
This Amazingly Well-Preserved Mummy Told Many Secrets… and Didn’t Come From Egypt

This Amazingly Well-Preserved Mummy Told Many Secrets… and Didn’t Come From Egypt

Natasha sheldon - April 15, 2019

In 1971, a group of workers were employed by the hospital at Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in Southern China, to construct a bomb shelter in the side of a hill in the hospital grounds. The workers were busy excavating the shelter when 100 feet into the mound they made a most unexpected discovery. For it turned out the hill was the burial site of three elaborate ancient tombs filled, with extraordinarily well-preserved grave goods that rivalled finds from Ancient Egypt.

Experts dated the tombs to the second century BC, the period of the Western Han Dynasty. Within them, they discovered bodies belonged to three members of the ruling dynasty of the Han fiefdom of Dai. The oldest tomb belonged to the Li Cang, the Marquis of Dai. The next tomb, dated to 18 years after the first, contained the remains of a man in his 30’s who is believed to be either the Marquis’s brother or his son, Li Xi. However, grandest of the tombs, dated to the same year as the second, belonged to a woman. She was Xin Zhui, the Lady Dai, wife of the Marquis Li Cang.

While Lady Dai’s tomb was equally as her ostentatious as her husband and son’s, it was her corpse that excited the most interest. For Xin Zhui’s two-thousand-year-old remains were in the same state of preservation as someone only recently deceased. The extraordinary state of her body led to the media hailing Xin Zhui as the best-preserved mummy in the world. However, Lady Dai may not be a mummy at all.

This Amazingly Well-Preserved Mummy Told Many Secrets… and Didn’t Come From Egypt
The location of the three tombs. Picture Credit: Siyuwj. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


The Chinese Mawangdui Tombs that rivalled those of the Pharaohs.

The Mawangdui tombs, as the last resting place of Lady Dai and her relatives, have become known, were burials to rival the ancient Egyptians. The exterior of each tomb consisted of layers of white clay and charcoal, while the builders had lined the interiors with cypress or pine planks. Inside each vault, a series of wooden chambers surrounded the tomb’s occupant who lay inside a nest of coffins. These chambers were stuffed full of the trappings of their occupant’s earthly status, which they intended to take with them into the afterlife.

The Lords and lady of Dai certainly intended to enjoy eternity in style. Archaeologists recovered approximately 3000 objects from all three tombs, including works of art, musical instruments, clothes, food and household and personal items- as well as facsimiles of the family’s servants. They recovered few personal effects from the western tomb belonging to Li Cang, the first Marquis of Dai who died in 186 BC because robbers cleared it out in antiquity. The grave of his male relative, Li Xi, fared better. For the extensive library of military, medicinal and astronomical texts written on silk that Li Xi took with him into the afterlife in 168 BC remains intact.

Lady Dai’s even more impressive tomb was built shortly after Li Xi’s. The grave goods inside it show the lady was a woman of wealth and importance in her own right. People assisting with the burial had stuffed the four compartments that surrounded Xin Zhui’s coffins with items relevant to every aspect of the lady’s life. The first compartment was a dining room, complete with cushions, an armrest and the Xin Zhui’s stick. Meanwhile, on a low Han dining table, a lavish feast was laid out consisting of meat and vegetable dishes, flavoured with spices and accompanied by savoury condiments and finished off with rice cakes.

This Amazingly Well-Preserved Mummy Told Many Secrets… and Didn’t Come From Egypt
Lady Dai’s T shaped funeral banner found draped over her coffin. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain

Other compartments contained lady Dai’s personal effects. Attendants had packed the tomb with her clothes, including an exquisite gold silk dress, embroidered with flowers and phoenix’s and the lady’s fingerless gloves, her cosmetic boxes and musical instruments. Amongst the food supplies that Xin Zhui was taking into the afterlife were medicinal supplies- including a beverage designed to bestow long life and health made from caterpillar fungus.

At the centre of the tomb was Lady Dai’s nest of four lacquered coffins, surrounded by 162 wooden carvings of her mourning servants. The outermost coffin was draped with a T shaped silk banner proclaiming Lady Dai’s identity and status in the afterlife. Its depiction of lady Dai herself is the earliest example of a portrait of a known individual from China. As for Lady Dai’s body, that lay in the innermost coffin, cocooned in twenty layers of silk cloth tied with ribbons and covered with more charcoal and white clay.

This Amazingly Well-Preserved Mummy Told Many Secrets… and Didn’t Come From Egypt
Xin Zhui, Lady Dai as she was in her prime. Model created from casts taken of her body. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The Mummy of Lady Dai

The body that lay beneath the layers of silk and clay was extraordinary. For although archaeologists knew Lady Dai died 2000 years previously, she seemed recently dead. The Lady’s black hair was her own and still intact- as was her eyebrows and eyelashes. Even her nostril hairs remained in place. As for Xin Zhui’sskin, this too remained uncorrupted. It was moist and soft, and even the fingerprints were discernable. The muscles and tendons beneath her flesh were similarly un-degraded and her so pliable they could be manipulated. Lady Dai’s internal organs also remained. Even her veins had survived; some still containing drops of her Type A blood.

This Amazingly Well-Preserved Mummy Told Many Secrets… and Didn’t Come From Egypt
Chinese Western Han (202 BC – 9 AD) era lacquerware and lacquer tray unearthed from Lady Dai’s tomb. Picture credit: drs2biz. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Lady Dai’s body was in such good condition that experts were able to subject her to a full gynaecological study and an autopsy. Surgeons from Hunan’s Provincial Medical Institution began their investigations on December 14, 1972, with one surgeon concentrating on the lady’s head and the other the rest of her body. What they discovered offered a remarkable insight into Lady Dai’s life and death.

The surgeons discovered that Xin Zhui lived to around 50 years of age- a respectable age for her era. However, while Lady Dai managed to outlive her husband by 18 years and even her son, her lifestyle and health were not perfect. For Lady Dai’s luxurious, pampered lifestyle had taken its toll. A renown beauty in her youth, by the time she died, the Lady was massively overweight, her face overshadowed by double chins and her mobility impaired by a fused spinal disc that besides being acutely painful would have made exercise impossible.

This obesity had its roots in Lady Dai’s diet. For besides intestinal parasites, the surgeons discovered that the lady’s rich meals had clogged her arteries, leading to coronary thrombosis and a massively damaged heart. The Lady’s heart and circulatory problems were made worse by the fact that her diet had also caused gallstones that were blocking her bile duct. This condition would have made Lady Dai’s circulation worse-finally culminating in a massive heart attack. The experts believed that this was the cause of Lady Dai’s sudden death. This fatal event occurred just after one of her generous meals-Judging from her stomach contents.

This Amazingly Well-Preserved Mummy Told Many Secrets… and Didn’t Come From Egypt
Lady Dai’s lacquered coffin. Picture Credit: 猫猫的日记本. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The Mystery of Lady Dai’s “Mummification”

The preservation of Xin Zhui’s body was extraordinary; better than any Egyptian mummy. However, although this has led to many lauding the Lady of Dai as the world’s best-preserved mummy, there is no proof that she had been mummified-at least, not in the conventional way.

Mummies are produced one of two ways: by natural or artificial preservation. Natural mummies occur in extremes of heat or cold, or in anaerobic environments where a lack of oxygen preserves the flesh. The ancient Egyptians began their process of artificial mummification by draining the deceased’s blood and removing the internal organs – which were most vulnerable to putrification- and storing them separately. They then dehydrated the body to halt decay using natron, a type of salt. Finally, they packed any hollows left by the absent organs with cloths before wrapping the corpse in linen.

Lady Dai’s body was wrapped in silk. However, this is where any similarities to Egyptian mummies ends. Her body was moist, not desiccated and not a drop of blood or a single organ had been removed. The only indication of any preservative solution came from the 21 gallons of slightly acidic, magnesium-based liquid which surrounded her corpse in its inner coffin. This liquid oxidised as soon as exposed to air. It also left the archaeologists who discovered Lady Dai with a rash on their hands for several weeks.

This Amazingly Well-Preserved Mummy Told Many Secrets… and Didn’t Come From Egypt
Picture of Lady Dai on her silk funeral banner. Picture credit: Flazaza. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Since Lady Dai’s discovery, archaeologists have found two other corpses within a few hundred miles of the Mawangdui Tombs- both in a similar state of preservation. Experts have identified them as a magistrate named Sui and Ling Huiping, the wife of a powerful Han dynasty Lord. However, even if the ancient Chinese were privy to a now lost preservative fluid, while the application of such a liquid to the exterior of the corpse may explain the excellent surface condition of the body, it does not explain the survival of the internal organs and tissues.

Some experts now believe that, while the mysterious fluid may have played its part, Lady Dai’s remarkable preservation may have more to do with the conditions of her burial than the strange liquid. For the fact that her body was buried in a watertight tomb, 40 feet underground, in a sealed nested coffin, and insulated in twenty layers of silk and a paste of charcoal and clay may have been enough to keep oxygen and decay at bay. Today, science aids Xin Zhui’s continued preservation using another secret elixir which Lady Dai’s modern attendants injected into her veins Mummified or not; this modern day mystery preservative ensures that Lady Dai remains as fresh today as on the day archaeologists first lifted the lid on her coffin.


Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

China’s Sleeping Beauty, Eti Bonn-Muller, Archaeology: Archaeological Institute of America, April 10, 2009

Chinese Lady Dai leaves Egyptian mummies for dead, Yu Chunhong, China Daily, August 25, 2004

Funeral banner of Lady Dai (Xin Zhui), Khan Academy

The Last Feast of Lady Dai, Julie Rauer, Asian Art, November 2, 2006