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

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