Archaeologists in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region have unearthed a lacquer coffin from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 to 534 A.D.), snatching it out from under the nose of looters. The looters were caught digging a tunnel 10 meters (33 feet) long towards the tomb entrance, which is how archaeologists knew where to dig.
Tombs of aristocrats from the Northern Wei Dynasty have been found before in the Xilin Gol Grassland, a prairie region in Inner Mongolia that has been home to nomadic tribes since the Bronze Age Shang Dynasty in the 16th century B.C. Most recently, two tombs have been unearthed in the past two years in locations adjacent to the one that was just discovered. The potential for treasure in these tombs has attracted thieves who are so bold they often act as parasites on official archaeological projects, digging the same site at night that the professionals are excavating during the day. It’s a lucky break that they were caught in this instance before they destroyed the archaeological context in their search for salable goods.
On March 7th, the large black-lacquered pinewood coffin was removed from the tomb along with archaeological context material like soil and wood and brought to a laboratory at the Xilin Gol League Museum in Xilin Hot, Inner Mongolia. The next day, the coffin was gingerly opened to reveal the mortal remains of an aristocratic woman in excellent condition. She was wrapped in a silk shroud and wearing fur boots. Her thick black hair was adorned with a metal headband. She was buried with goods including a bow, a dagger and various pottery vessels.
Archaeologists have not found any indication of the identity of the deceased, but they hope that analysis will reveal much about her life and death. Samples of her hair will be tested for information about her diet, age and health. The well-preserved contents of the coffin and tomb will hopefully provide experts with new insight into the funerary customs of ancient Xianbei nomadic tribes who inhabited the area. There were many tribes under the Xianbei umbrella. Researchers hope to narrow down which clan the aristocratic woman belonged to.
One of the Tuoba tribe, Tuoba Liwei, was posthumously considered the first emperor of the Northern Wei Dynasty. Although China was briefly unified under the Northern Wei in 439 A.D., when the dynasty came to power it employed customs and practices that were foreign to the ethnic Chinese majority, like requiring would-be empresses not to be of high birth, but to be able to forge gold statues during a ceremony, and forcing the mothers of crown princes to commit suicide and instead giving princes’ wet nurses dowager empress status. As the dynasty expanded and fused with neighboring ethnic groups, these distinct practices fell out of favor.