A Unique Liao Era Tomb

China Scenic - - Archaeology -

Then came the burial cham­ber it­self, which was the most im­por­tant of all. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing the princess and her con­sort were the most abun­dant and most con­cen­trated col­lec­tion of ex­quis­ite grave goods. A large amount of pris­tine his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion re­mained sealed in­side, un­touched since the burial.

Af­ter clear­ing the de­cayed door lead­ing to the burial cham­ber, we last en­tered the burial cham­ber. The round struc­ture was shaped just like a felt yurt. A re­tain­ing wall of red pine, pressed firmly against the back wall of the cham­ber. The top of the two-me­ter high re­tain­ing wall fol­lowed the shape of the cham­ber wall and arches, form­ing a tight fit with the domed roof, jointly cre­at­ing a ma­jes­tic wooden cham­ber.

Along the back wall of the cham­ber was a plat­form sup­ported by five lay­ers of hor­i­zon­tally laid bricks. On each of the four sides were sev­eral small peach-shaped niches, in­side of which were painted five pale ocher blos­soms. Around the bot­tom of the plat­form was an in­ge­niously col­ored carved rail­ing upon which hung valance. This is the “fu­ner­ary bed” that the Khi­tans used in place of a wooden cof­fin. The Princess and her con­sort should be there.

We held our breath and slowly ap­proached. In the dim lamp­light, what we saw on the plat­form was a shock to all of us: gold and sil­ver, am­ber and jade and all sorts of ex­otic trea­sures re­mained in the same po­si­tions as when the burial took place. Ly­ing qui­etly atop a bright pur­ple gold-wefted mat were the princess and her con­sort.

Strik­ingly, the faces of the Princess and Prince Con­sort were both cov­ered by pure gold death

masks, and their en­tire bod­ies tightly wrapped in sil­ver mesh, rem­i­nis­cent of an an­cient Egyp­tian mummy. Un­der closer ex­am­i­na­tion, the con­tours, de­tails in­di­cat­ing gen­der, and fa­cial fea­tures of the two masks were ut­terly dif­fer­ent. The gold mask cov­er­ing the Princess fea­tured a fuller, rounded face that con­veyed the soft­ness typ­i­cal of a young fe­male. Based on the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Con­sort’s mask, he should have been a hand­some man with del­i­cate fea­tures, spare but not lack­ing in for­ti­tude.

Who would have imag­ined that we were des­tined to see the true mien of the princess and her hus­band as they were be­fore death? This elicited our in­ter­est in this strange burial cus­tom. Where could it have orig­i­nated? And what did it tell us about how the Khi­tans per­ceived life and death?

In our fol­low- up re­search, we com­pared this unique burial prac­tice first with the Han Dy­nasty’s

“Jade burial suit sewn with gold wire,” and then with the “tree burial” (where the corpse was wrapped in bark or branches and left in a tree) that is wide­spread among the no­mads of North­east Asia. But there was no clear as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween ei­ther of them and what we found in the tomb of the Princess of Chen­guo.

Then we came upon this de­scrip­tion in Sup­ple­mentstothe­of­fi­cial­his­to­ry­ofthe­liao by Li E, a Qing Dy­nasty scholar: in order to en­sure that the corpse of the de­ceased did not rot, the Khi­tans pos­sessed a special treat­ment. First, the body was hung up­side down so that its filth was dis­charged from the mouth. Then the skin was pricked with a sharp reed to make it bleed, and the body was smeared with alum in order to des­ic­cate it. Once the body’s blood and oils had been purged, a con­coc­tion of herbal medicine, alum and salt was placed in­side the body. Lastly, the fa­cial mask was wrapped in gold and sil­ver mesh, and the hands and feet were wrapped in bro­cade. Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions and writ­ten records con­firm each other, so it ap­pears this was a gen­uine prac­tice. The masks and metal­lic net­ting were ex­te­rior pro­tec­tion mea­sures for these “mum­mies.”

An­other sec­tion of text that is recorded in North­bound Diary, a Song Dy­nasty trav­el­ogue, de­scribes the pre­de­ces­sor of this ex­otic burial cus­tom. In the last years of the South­ern Song, Min­is­ter Lou Yao was dis­patched as an en­voy to the Jin Dy­nasty, and as he passed through the Khi­tan re­gion, he recorded this scene that he saw with his own eyes: a “corpse des­ic­ca­tion shed” was erected right by the road­side, and a dead body lay in it, unat­tended. The corpse was cov­ered in thorns. At its side was a stele in­scribed with the de­ceased’s name and year and month of its death.

Sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the prim­i­tive prac­tice of cov­er­ing the corpse with thorns on the one hand, and the use of gold masks and wrap­ping the body in net­ting on the other, led us to be­lieve that the lat­ter is ac­tu­ally a “re-in­ter­pre­ta­tion” of tra­di­tional burial cus­toms that oc­curred when the Khi­tans be­came eco­nom­i­cally bet­ter off. The lat­ter prac­tice did not in­volve a wooden cof­fin; in­stead, the corpse was wrapped in metal­lic net­ting to pro­tect it, and placed upon the “fu­ner­ary bed.”

the coun­tries where they were fab­ri­cated, the price of a su­pe­rior qual­ity piece ex­ceeded that of gold. Mas­ter­pieces still ex­tant to­day are also very rare, like “phoenix feath­ers and uni­corn horns,” as the Chi­nese say.

Where ex­actly did the glass­ware in the Princess’ tomb orig­i­nate? And by whose hand were they created?

To bet­ter un­der­stand the pedi­gree of these seven items of glass­ware, re­ly­ing solely on data from the ex­ca­va­tion site would be in­suf­fi­cient. Some­times there is not just a need to com­pare them with and dif­fer­en­ti­ate them from sim­i­lar finds in China and else­where; mod­ern chem­i­cal tech­nol­ogy must also be ap­plied. Af­ter thor­oughly com­par­a­tive stud­ies, the ex­perts reached a sur­pris­ing con­clu­sion.

One of the items is a glass basin fea­tur­ing a hob­nail pat­tern, and this may the only such mas­ter­piece in the world. The en­tire piece is a sim­ple and smooth shape. On its un­der­side are 28 pyra­mid-shaped “milk nails” that gives it a gen­uine 20th Cen­tury “punk” air. Although we made in­quiries with bod­ies that col­lect such items world­wide, we did not find a sin­gle one that was fully con­sis­tent with this one. Fi­nally, for com­par­i­son’s sake we lo­cated a sim­i­lar glass basin with high re­lief en­grav­ing at Italy’s San Marco Mu- seum. There are also ex­perts who have noted that in one 10th Cen­tury Byzan­tine paint­ing, there is an ex­am­ple where a sim­i­lar item ap­peared as the bot­tom bowl of a chan­de­lier. Per­haps this piece of glass­ware came from 9th to 10th Cen­tury Byzan­tium.

An­other two high-necked glass bot­tles had a thick weath­ered layer that over­laid their pale yel­low-green sur­faces, and an abun­dance of bub­bles in­side the glass. Based on their shapes and chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion, ex­perts reckon that they orig­i­nated in Cen­tral Asia. There was also a high-necked glass bot­tle with hob­nails, whose lower sides and bot­tom re­vealed its home­land — likely 8th to 10th Cen­tury Egypt or Syria. The other three pieces of glass­ware also come from these re­gions.

The ori­gins of these fine works of glass are lo­cated thou­sands of miles apart in Cen­tral and West Asia, while some came from sites across the sea from the Khi­tan Em­pire. How did they come to rest in Princess of Chen­guo’s tomb? To find the an­swer we must re­turn to the era in which she and her con­sort lived.

That was the hey­day of the Khi­tan Em­pire, a time when in­ter­ac­tion with for­eign king­doms was most fre­quent. These “in­ter­ac­tions” largely came about in the midst of bru­tal con­quest and ter­ri­to­rial ex­pan­sion. The South­ern Song, Uyghurs in the north­west, and the Tar­tars all en­gaged in some form of trib­ute so as to gain a respite from at­tack by the Khi­tan cav­alry.

As the Khi­tan Em­pire ex­panded its bor­ders and pi­o­neered new land, its pres­tige quickly spread far

By Zhang Yin Pho­to­graphs by Ruan Xiaorong, and as cred­ited

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