Tang Dynasty tomb with stunning murals found

Archaeologists in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, north China, have unearthed a tomb decorated with murals depicting scenes of daily life from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Every surface except the floor is covered with murals in exceptional condition, the white, red, yellow, black, green and orange, saturated and vivid as if they’d been painted yesterday.

The tomb was first discovered in 2018 during an archaeological survey at the site of road construction. The Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology excavated the site, uncovering a single-chamber brick tomb consisting of a passageway to the tomb door, the entrance, a corridor and the main burial chamber. The entrance, corridor and chamber, including the walls, conical ceiling and the coffin bed, are all decorated with murals.

The tomb door is painted with red and yellow-orange swirling botanical designs. On each side of the interior of the door are a pair of men in yellow robes. Archaeologists believe they are guardian figures, protecting the entrance to the tomb. The corridor leading from the door into the burial chamber features another pair of men in yellow robes. Another pair of guardians are just inside the chamber door.

The conical ceiling of the chamber above each of the four walls is decorated with fantastical beasts edged by thick red ribbons and florals against a white background. The four walls of the burial chamber are painted with rectangular panels outlined in thick red lines. Inside most of the panels against a white backdrop are individuals standing under tall, stylized trees, a popular Tang-era style called, appropriately, the “figure under the tree” style.

The men depicted under the trees in the panels are in different postures and engaging in different activities, but they are consistent in appearance and clothing. Archaeologists believe they likely represent the same individual, namely the tomb’s owner. The repeated depictions of the man may also be allegorical representations of the various virtues of the deceased.

Of particular interest to archaeologists are the two large panels adjacent to the guardians on each side of the chamber door. The east wall mural features a mural with multiple scenes of daily life: a man rolling a stone grinder to peel grain shells, a woman working a stone mill, a man making dough balls with an iron pan on a fire, a man stepping on a pestle (a rice pounding tool) with a bamboo basket and a bamboo dustpan next to it, a woman drawing water from a well using a counterweight heavy-lifting device, and lastly, a woman doing the washing elbow-deep in a basin full of water while a large pot steams on the wood-burning stove.

The west wall panel depicts a woman in a multicolored gown holding a box in her hands. A man from a non-Han ethnic group in a yellow robe stands behind her, holding a whip and the reins of camels and horses. The panels on either side of these are filled with two elaborate flowering plants. These are rare designs in “figure under the tree” murals.

Long Zhen, the director of the Jinyang Ancient City Archaeological Institute, said the artistic style is similar to the paintings in the tomb of Wang Shenzi, who founded the dynastic state of Min (909-945), one of the regions during the Ten Kingdoms period (907-960), which is defined by the fall of the Tang dynasty and the rise of the Song dynasty.

Long hypothesised that the same artist may have painted both Wang’s tomb and the newly discovered mural.