Intact, precisely dated Western Han tomb found in southwest China

A tomb from the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 24 A.D.) in an excellent state of preservation has been unearthed in the Wulong district of Chongqing, southwestern China. The tomb was still sealed and the wooden coffin and more than 600 artifacts, including lacquerware, pottery wood, bamboo and bronze objects, survived in exceptional condition. Dubbed Guankou Western Han Dynasty Tomb No. 1, it contains the largest quantity of lacquerware and bamboo ware ever discovered in a single find in the upper Yangtze River.

The site was excavated this March in an archaeological salvage project due to hydropower station construction. Archaeologists discovered a number of tombs from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) and the Six Dynasties period (222 A.D. – 589 A.D.), but the Western Han tomb is the most significant of them all, not just thanks to the profusion of funerary furnishings it contained, but also because the precise date it was sealed was recorded.

Huang Wei, who led the excavation project, said in the report: “What is exciting about this discovery is not just the large number of unearthed artefacts but also a list of burial items that indicate a precise record of burial, which has been verified as 193 BC, providing clarity on the tomb’s date. A piece of unearthed jade ware shows the prominent position of the tomb owner.”

The date makes the tomb the earliest known Western Han burial site discovered in China.

Located in the Wujiang River basin, the tomb was filled with water which performed the dual function of preventing the decomposition of organic material and acting as a deterrent to would-be looters. Among the organic artifacts found in the tomb were ganzhi, wood slips representing the 60-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac. The sexagenary cycle was used to record days of the week going back to the earliest written records in Chinese archaeology: oracle bones from around 1200 B.C. Instead of the more simple 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac today in which one of a dozen animals represent a year, the sexagenary cycle combines two terms –10 Heavenly Stems and 12 Earthly Branches — to create a compound cycle of 60 that began as names for the days of the week and deceased family but by the middle of the 3rd century B.C. had evolved to represent years.

These wooden slips were how ancient Chinese civilisations communicated through writing before the invention of paper. The ganzhi, or wooden slips, are the first time that the specific artefact has been discovered in China.

Huang told China News Network: “This set of dry branch wooden slips is well preserved, with circular perforations on the sides. We believe ropes probably connected them, but since this was the first time these objects have been discovered, we still need to verify their uses and burial purposes.”