The immensely rich and well-preserved main tomb in the Western Han Dynasty cemetery near Nanchang, China, has been confirmed as that of Liu He, emperor for less than a month (from July 18th to August 14th 74 B.C.) and finally Marquis of Haihun. As they had hoped, archaeologists found a white jade seal at the waist of the human remains in the interior coffin of the tomb. The base of the seal is inscribed “Liu He.” As if that weren’t explicit enough, another jade seal was found in the tomb inscribed “Seal of Master Liu” and several of the gold coins and bamboo slips also bear his name.
The tomb is the largest and best preserved Western Han tomb ever discovered. It is packed to gills with archaeological treasure, and I don’t just mean the gold although there’s a crapload of that too. A total of 285 gold coins, in fact, each weighing about 250 grams, have been found packed in lacquer boxes. Archaeologists believe they were gifts from the emperor to Liu He. There’s also a stack of 20 gold plates, each 23 centimeters (nine inches) long, 10 centimeters (four inches) wide and 0.3 centimeters (.12 inches) thick. It’s far and away the most gold ever found in a Han Dynasty tomb.
In total more than 20,000 objects have been excavated from the tomb since digging began in 2011. If archaeologists had begun a day later, the tomb would have been emptied out by looters, its priceless archaeological information destroyed. Excavation began as an emergency response to a report that the tomb was being raided. In the process of stealing the saleable stuff — gold coins, bronze bells, bronze lamps, two million bronze coins, jade — the earliest known portrait of Confucius, 3,000 wooden tablets and bamboo slips would almost certainly have been damaged or destroyed. The tablets that have been examined so far are copies of reports the Marquis submitted to the Dowager Empress Shangguan and the Emperor Xuan. The bamboo slips haven’t been read yet, but if they’re like other examples found in Western Han tombs, they are likely medical and agricultural books.
The discovery of the tomb and its contents may well redeem Liu He for the history books. Before now, all the information on the record about him was written by the people who overthrew him 27 days after he took the throne. According to the victors, Liu He, grandson of Emperor Wu, the Han dynasty greatest’s emperor who reigned for 54 years (141-87 B.C.), and successor to his uncle, Emperor Zhao, was a spendthrift, depraved, disrespectful horndog who had all the sex, food and hunting he could during his four weeks as emperor when he supposed to be in mourning for his grandfather. When he was deposed, he was charged with 1127 counts of misconduct.
His tomb, however, shows no sign of this purported unprincipled profligacy. There is no decoration or content of any kind referring to his brief stint as emperor. As a marquis, he was allowed a grave mound no longer than 13 meters, but his was significantly shorter than that. The sheer amount of reading material in the tomb indicate that he was a man of learning. Archaeologists speculate that instead of being a drunken, gluttonous party animal, Liu He may have been a bookworm which didn’t suit the political machinations of the imperial courtiers. On the other hand, he may have just grown up a lot in the 15 years between his deposition and death.
More than 400 artifacts from the tomb have gone on display at Beijing’s Capital Museum. The show runs for just three months until June 2nd, and the museum is expecting big crowds. It’s only the second time any objects from Liu He’s tomb have been exhibited, and the first time outside of Jiangxi. When the Jiangxi Provincial Museum put 120 pieces on display last year, more than 180,000 people came to see them. The Beijing Capital Museum has crowd control plans in place. They will allow 1,000 individual visitors a day in the first week, with groups being given priority. After that, the limit will be raised to 5,000 people a day.