The mystery of Lady Dai, one of the world’s most preserved mummies6 min read
Despite her quite macabre appearance, Lady Dai is considered to be one of the world’s best preserved mummies.
If others tend to crumble at the slightest movement, she is so well-kept that doctors were even able to perform an autopsy more than 2,100 years after her death, probably the most complete medical profile ever compiled on an ancient individual!
But not only, as they were able to reconstruct her death, as well as her life, even determining her blood type, Type A.
Despite her face looks swollen and deformed, her skin is still soft to the touch, and there are no signs of rigor mortis anywhere, while her arms and legs can still bend.
Even her internal organs are intact and there is still blood in her veins. There was hair on her head, with a wig pinned with a hair clasp on the back of her head, and her finger and toe prints were distinct.
Lady Dai, or Xin Zhui ( 辛追 ), was the aristocratic wife of Li Cang ( 利蒼 ), the Marquis of Dai and Chancellor of Changsha Kingdom, during the Western Han dynasty of ancient China.
There was no doubt she lived a luxurious life and she had an extravagant lifestyle for her time, because her tomb was filled with items that only the wealthiest of her era could afford, including hundreds of richly embroidered silk garments, skirts, a silk sachet filled with spices, flowers, boxes of cosmetics, more than a hundred lacquer ware, musical instruments and statuettes of musicians, but also prepared meals and more a variety of other things.
She enjoyed having her own musicians for entertainment, whom she would have play for parties as well as her own personal amusement, but she may have enjoyed playing music as well, particularly the qin, which was traditionally associated with refinement and intellect.
And, apparently, she wanted to maintain the same lifestyle in the afterlife.
However, it seems also that was the same good life that eventually killed her.
Reputedly a beauty in her youthness, Lady Dai indulged herself in every culinary delight, including a scorpion soup, until her diminutive frame buckled under obesity.
And art on her funerary banner even depicted her leaning on a cane. She might have been unable to walk by herself because of her coronary thrombosis and arteriosclerosis due to her sedentary lifestyle but she was also found to have, as her autopsy revealed, a fused disc in her spine that would have caused severe back pain and difficulty walking.
Moreover, she also had several internal parasites, most likely from eating undercooked food or from poor hygiene, suffered from clogged arteries, serious heart disease, osteoporosis and gallstones, one of which lodged in her bile duct and further deteriorated her condition.
In any case, she died around 50 years of age in 168 BC. from a sudden heart attack, brought about by years of poor health, and her last meal consisted of melons: a total of 138 seeds were found in her stomach, intestines, and esophagus. It is inferred that she died in summer, when fruits and melons ripen, and the presence of melon seeds in her stomach also indicates that she died within two to three hours after eating the fruit.
Ironically, her tomb contains an incredible amount of information in the form of books and tablets inscribed with Chinese characters on health, well-being, and longevity. On tablets are recipes of various traditional Chinese medicine to treat diseases such as headache, paralysis, asthma, sexual among others.
The tomb was found in 1968 inside a hill known as Mawangdui, in Changsha, Hunan, China, by workers digging an air raid shelter for a hospital near Changsha.
Lady Dai was found wrapped in twenty of layers of silk and laid to rest within a series of four nested coffins of decreasing sizes.
The first and outermost coffin is painted black, the color of death and the underworld.
The second coffin has a black background but is painted with a pattern of stylized clouds and with protective deities and auspicious animals roaming an empty universe. A tiny figure, the deceased woman, is emerging at the bottom center of the head end.
The third has a different color scheme and iconography: It is shining red, the color of immortality, and the decorative motifs include divine animals and a winged immortal flanking three-peaked Mount Kunlun, which is a prime symbol of eternal happiness.
Yellow and black feathers are stuck on the cover board of the coffin. People at that time believed that in order to fly up to the heavens and become immortal, one needs to go through a “featherization” phase, which is growing feathers on the body. A celestial being is even referred to as a “feathered person” in some texts.
Interestingly, to keep out air and water, her coffin was packed with charcoal with its top sealed with several layers of clay. This water tight and air tight space effectively killed any bacteria that might have been inside and helped to preserve the body. But archaeologists also found traces of mercury in her coffin, that it may have been used as an antibacterial agent. Moreover, her body was found soaked in an unknown liquid that’s slightly acidic. Some speculate that it prevented bacteria from growing, while other believe that the liquid is actually water from the body rather than some preserving liquid poured into the coffin.
But how exactly Lady Dai’s body fought decomposition is a mystery still today, as many bodies buried in similar environments failed to preserve.
The excavation at Mawangdui and the bodies of Lady Dai )but also that of her husband and a young man who is most commonly thought to be her son) is considered one of the major archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, but not only for their historical value. In fact, from the construction of the tombs and from the various funerary artifacts archeologists were able to piece together how the aristocrats lived during the Hun period.
From the various meals inside the tomb, and even from the contents of Lady Dai’s stomach, archeologists were able to reconstruct a surprisingly detailed history of Western Han dynasty’s diet, agricultural practices, hunting methods, domestication of animals, food and its preparation, cultivation, as well as insight at a structural level into the development of one of the world’s great and enduring cuisines.
In Western Han Dynasty, elaborate and lavish burials were common practice.
One reason was the notion of imperishability of the soul: it was believed that another world existed for the dead, and they needed food and accommodation just like the living. Therefore, the consecration for the dead should be the same as what was provided for the living, and all the necessities in life should be brought into the grave for use in the afterlife.
The mummy of Lady Dai now rests in the Hunan Provincial Museum, where she can be visited.
Images from web – Google Research