After being transported for 1,400 kilometers, the more than 1,000-year-old coffin finally arrived safely in the national treasure storehouse in the Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute in Hohhot.
The red and black coffin -- 2.3 meters long, 1.3 meters wide and 0.9 meters high -- was decorated with patterns of cranes, phoenixes, peonies and clouds. The gilded cranes and peonies shined with a dazzling glamour as the bright color still remained after one millennium.
Strings of copper bells hung around the coffin, which had a small door-like opening at the top. The "door" had a copper lock on it and two gilded "guards" standing on each side.
The coffin was unearthed in Tongliao last month from what turned out to be a stone tomb on the southern side of the Tuerji Mountains. The tomb may have been built during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125).
The tomb itself was in a unique style. The entrance was through a 40-metre-long tunnel, which led to an underground courtyard of about 20 square meters. On one side of the courtyard was a giant red and brown stone, which was about 2 meters long, 1.5 meters wide and 0.5 meters thick.
After we removed the stone, we saw a closed wooden door with an iron lock. Opening the door, we were in the main burial chamber, which covered more than 10 square meters.
The chamber had murals on each wall, depicting the sun and the moon. An osmanthus tree and a rabbit were painted in the moon, and a bird with three legs was painted in the sun.
In the chamber, we found more than 200 copper artifacts, most of which were gilded, as well as silver boxes and chopsticks, gold cups, glass cups, lacquer boxes and plates inlaid with silver, saddles overlaid with gold and silver, and quantities of silk fabric.
The most precious artifact unearthed was the coffin. We decided to open it last Thursday, under the guidance of an expert team from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.
The investigation itself was a journey of surprising discoveries.
We began at 11 pm that day, and had made sure that the temperature in the storehouse was kept at 15 degrees C and the humidity at 60 to 70 per cent.
Upon the orders of Ta La, the excavation team leader and deputy director of the archaeological research institute, eight technicians slowly opened the coffin.
A smaller coffin, about 1.6 meters long, appeared. Made of cypress wood, it had colored bas-relief patterns of golden dragons and flying phoenixes on the cover.
Who was the owner?
After archaeologists took various measurements of the inner coffin and shot photographs, the technicians opened it and the owner of the tomb appeared.
At that stage, it was too early to ascertain the owner's gender.
He or she lied on his or her back, with layers of badly rotten silk covering the body. We could hardly see his or her facial features as the body had been soaked in water, which penetrated into the tomb chamber.
As well as the silk, the tomb owner wore a "crown" made of gold leaves and a necklace made of red agate, black crystals and gold thread wound into small balls. He or she rested his or her head on a golden bracket made of wood, and had another bracket made of metal supporting his or her jaw.
Beside the head, there were two pieces of gold in the shape of long and narrow strips, which were carved with patterns of peonies and decorated with tassels.
They could be hairpins, said experts there. Hairpins would offer a clue as to the gender of the deceased, as images of Khitan ladies wearing such hairpins in their coiled hair have been found in murals unearthed elsewhere in Inner Mongolia, in Baoshan.
The speculation was proved right as more rotten material was removed and we saw well-preserved, beautifully coiled hair. We could establish then that the tomb owner was a woman because the men of the Liao Dynasty had their hair cut on the crown of the head.
In addition to the hairpins, we also noticed strings of copper bells beside her knees, which, together with a silver horn that was unearthed, indicated the identity of the tomb owner. She could have been an aristocrat who danced or played music in sacrificial ceremonies, the experts proposed.
The Khitans, who established the Liao Dynasty, were lovers of music and dancing. Sacred dances were performed at banquets, ceremonies to offer sacrifice to the gods and ancestors, and prior to wars.
Those who presided over such ceremonies were widely respected then but have been little documented in historical records. This was also a feature of the excavated tomb, which had quantities of treasures buried inside but no tablets recording the life of the tomb owner.
The day went on and the technicians cleared rotten material from the coffin. As the silks covering the body were extremely delicate, we decided, on the morning of last Friday, to leave them there temporarily and to make a survey of the body using X-rays.
That afternoon, experts from the Hohhot Municipal Hospital arrived with a large X-ray machine and took photos of the body.
On the morning of Saturday, the X-ray photos showed that the tomb owner was a physically well-developed young woman of about 1.56 meters tall. With no broken bones or vertebral disease, she would have died an accidental death.
The X-ray photos also showed that, inside the layers of silk, there were lots of jewels on the tomb owner's head, bosom, back, waist, wrists and ears, with a knife and some small bags beside her waist.
Ancient burials usually left such items to ensure that the dead person led as good a life, if not better, in the afterlife. The knife, bags, saddles, arrows and bows found in the tomb corresponded to the image of Khitan women in ancient Chinese poems as being strong, healthy and good at horse racing and archery.
Through the X-rays, we saw several characters written with ink on the silks around her breasts. Two of them can be recognized as the Khitan large characters for "heaven" and "dynasty."
The two characters further proved that the tomb owner was an aristocrat working in sacrificial ceremonies, since similar characters meaning "Long live the heavenly dynasty" were found on a silver coin in Inner Mongolia in 1977. The phrase was a prayer for the continuance of the Liao Dynasty.
Encouraged by the information conveyed in the X-ray photos, the experts removed the smaller coffin from the larger one Saturday afternoon. After freeing the four sides of the smaller coffin, we lifted the body onto a platform, and worked on it until 5 pm.
By then, we had discovered that the tomb owner was less than 20 years old when she died, as she had a complete set of regular teeth and a slender skeleton. She would have died of a mercury overdose, as the quantity of mercury in the body had dyed her bones and hair black.
The noble young woman was wearing eight layers of silk robes. One inner layer, which remained intact, had elaborate patterns of golden dragons.
Many jewels were buried with her. Among them the most precious were two gold tablets inscribed with patterns of the sun and the moon, which were put on her two shoulders.
Similar patterns, representing astronomical bodies, were found on the dome of the tomb chamber.
In the process of investigating the findings, we have carefully preserved the relics discovered, especially the silk fabric and the colorful paintings on the coffin, with the help of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage expert team led by Zhan Changfa, a researcher with the Chinese Research Institute of Cultural Heritage in Beijing.
Now we have completed the investigation into the coffin, but mystery still shrouds the silently sleeping young woman. Behind her was a once prosperous horse-riding ethnic group that suddenly disappeared and whose history we have only peeped into.
(China Daily June 19, 2003)