A Unique Liao Era Tomb
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