Dismantling, cleaning, conserving and coating the largest the expanse of medieval glass in the UK took a decade. Piecing together a single lacquer bed frame took almost two. The dragon bed was unearthed in 2000 from a tomb complex on Commercial Street in downtown Chengdu, capital of China’s southcentral Sichuan province, but it was not arranged for ease of interpretation. It was in pieces, various sections of it placed in multiple coffins. First the archaeologists had to locate every part — 45 in total, the largest more than 10 feet long, the smallest about eight inches long — and then they had to immediately conserve the water-logged wood to ensure it didn’t dry up, shrink, crack and suffer irremediable paint and lacquer loss.
For 10 years, from 2000 until 2010, the wood parts were kept underwater for their own protection. In 2010, the dehydration process began. The bed pieces were soaked in a combination of chemicals that replaced the water content with an air-stable waxy substance similar to the way PEG was used in the preservation of the Mary Rose. This stage took four years. Next was a very slow drying stage that according to national regulations must be carefully monitored to ensure there is no more than 5% shrinkage. The conservators at the Cultural Relics and Rehabilitation Center of the Chengdu Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology managed to keep the shrinkage rate even lower than that, 3%.
Once dried and stabilized, the bed was ready for reconstruction. The problem was that it was hard to even know where to start, like a thousand piece jigsaw without a map on the underside of the box lid. Then the ghosts of Shu spoke to the engineers and conservators through little engraved icons near each joint. They look like a child’s line drawing, not proportional or to scale, more like symbols on a Mahjong set, but each symbol near a mortise has a match near a tenon. Fit the joints with the matching symbols together and you have yourself a 2,500-year-old dragon bed.
All told, it has taken 17 years, but they finally accomplished it. The lacquer bed is one majestic piece again, 2.55 meters (8.37 feet) long, 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) wide and 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) high. Named after the cinnabar dragons that decorate its long sides, the bed is the largest, oldest ancient lacquer bed ever discovered in China, and it is exceptionally well-preserved, with all of its original mortise and tenon joints still in fine functioning order.
“Parts of the bed were scattered in a number of boat-shaped coffins at the time of the discovery, and it took archeologists and their staff 17 years to restore the bed to its original form to the best of their ability, using various techniques,” said Xiao Lin, who heads the restoration department of the institute.
“Based on its structure and patterns, the bed is very likely to have been used by an ancient king of Shu State, who ruled the region in the early Warring States period 2,500 years ago,” said Yan Jinsong, an archeologist who headed the excavation work of the tomb complex. “The signs that makers left on the bed are highly related to the language used in the Shu State, offering new and valuable clues to archeologists keen to decode the mysterious ancient language.”
According to later chroniclers (all of whom were keen to connect their emperors or rulers with mythical godlike power figures of the distance past), the Bronze Age Shu culture has legendary antecedents going back thousands of years. There isn’t any archaeological evidence connecting the Shu to, say, the “Yellow Emperor,” but there are remains of settlements and artifacts dating as early as 2,000 B.C. By the 5th century B.C., the Shu kings were firmly established and founded Chengdu as their new capital. It’s around this time that the dragon bed was made, like for one of the Shu kings or princes. They didn’t have long to enjoy it. The Shu kingdom was conquered by the state of Qin in 316 B.C. during the Warring States period and victorious Qin general Zhang Yi rebuilt Chengdu.