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Mausoleum of Emperor Wen of Han identified

LU HANG | 2021-12-24 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pottery figurines discovered from an outer burial pit of the Ba Mausoleum Photo: SHAANXI ACADEMY OF ARCHAEOLOGY


The Ba Mausoleum of Emperor Wen of Han (r. 180–157 BCE), the third emperor of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE), has been identified, announced China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) on December 14. It is a large-scale mausoleum on the White Deer Plain in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, previously known as the Jiangcun Grand Tomb. The news soon became a trending topic on social media.
 
A mysterious tomb
White Deer Plain was also known as Bashang in history, because it looks over the Ba River. Jiangcun Village on the White Deer Plain has recently become famous for hosting this large tomb.
 
On December 14, CSST reporters visited the archaeological site of the Jiangcun Grand Tomb. Down the steps were nearly 1,000 Han Dynasty pottery figurines piled up on the floor. These pottery figurines are about 50-60 centimeters high, 1/3 the size of a human being. They were made according to human body proportions, and were meticulously crafted. With various expressions, each figurine has its own unique look. Closer inspection reveals that the gender features of these pottery figurines are easily recognizable. Even the eunuch figurines are easily distinguishable. 
 
A total of 115 outer burial pits around the Jiangcun Grand Tomb have been discovered thus far, of which eight pits have been excavated by archaeologists. Over 1,000 dressed pottery figurines, more than 3,000 artifacts made of gold, silver, copper, iron, and clay, as well as many lacquer works were unearthed from these eight pits. Archaeologists also found many official seals that were only used for the deceased, which indicates that the outer burial pits around the Jiangcun Grand Tomb mimicked real government offices and treasuries.
 
At the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, ancient tombs and sites of the Han and Tang (618–907) dynasties in Xi’an and Xianyang [a city in Shaanxi province] were frequently raided by tomb robbers at that time. In 2001, a tomb robber named Zhang Xiaoyan excavated and stole 180 Western-Han “naked” pottery figurines from the White Deer Plain. Some of the figurines were sold abroad. In March 2002, Shaanxi police learned that six black “naked” pottery figurines dug out from Xi’an were about to be presented at a Sotheby’s auction in the US the very next day. The People’s Government of Shaanxi Province turned to the Ministry of Public Security, the NCHA, and other departments for help. Jiao Nanfeng, leader of the Yang Mausoleum archaeological team at that time, was assigned by the NCHA to negotiate with Sotheby’s. The Chinese embassy resorted to diplomatic means and finally stopped the transaction. In 2003, the US returned the six pottery figurines to China. 
 
Except for the black surface, the shape and size of these six pottery figurines are almost the same as those of the dressed pottery figurines unearthed from the Yang Mausoleum, tomb of Emperor Jing of Han (r. 157–141 BCE), located in Xianyang. Subsequently, the public security department launched an investigation into the origins of these six pottery figurines, and finally determined that they were robbed by Zhang Xiaoyan. Zhang confessed that these pottery figurines were stolen from an ancient tomb in Jiangcun. The black surface of these figurines may have been caused by burning charcoal when the tomb was robbed earlier. From 2006 to 2009, a rescue excavation was launched by archaeologists at Jiangcun Village. Archaeologists were surprised by the discovery of a large-scale tomb with four ramps [leading to the entrance of the burial chamber]. Before the identity of the owner of the tomb was confirmed, this tomb was called the Jiangcun Grand Tomb by archaeologists.
 
Archaeological details 
The ancient Chinese believed that the deceased should be served as if they were alive. So many ancient tombs are designed to be imitations of the real world where the tomb owners lived when they were alive. The layout of the Ba Mausoleum is similar to the Chinese character “亞”, and the tomb chamber has a length of about 72 meters. 
 
Why are the pottery figurines buried in the outer pits naked? According to Cao Long, a deputy research fellow from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology, these figurines should be called “dressed-naked pottery figurines,” to be precise. He explained that when the pottery figurines were buried in ancient times, they had wooden arms that were fitted into their body through joggle joints, and they were dressed in silk or linen clothes depending on the identities they represented. However, having been buried underground for more than 2,000 years, their clothes and wooden arms decayed. This is why these figurines became “naked.” 
 
Ma Yongying, a research fellow from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology, noted that based on archaeological findings made in recent years, most of the dressed-naked pottery figurines were unearthed from the tombs of the Han Dynasty emperors and empresses. They were high-level grave goods exclusively for imperial family members.
 
From the outer burial pits, archaeologists discovered for the first time some pottery figurines of prisoners with chains around their necks, wrists, and ankles. These figurines symbolize the corvée labor imposed for building the mausoleum. Zhu Chenlu, an assistant research fellow from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology, pointed to a figurine and said: “Look, this female pottery figurine wears an iron qian [an instrument of torture in ancient China] around her neck, and her shaven head is a symbol of the kun punishment [an ancient punishment where the offender’s hair was cut off].” 
 
The archaeological team conducted a detailed exploration of the periphery of the Jiangcun Grand Tomb and discovered a rammed earth wall about 1,200 meters long from east to west and 860 meters long from north to south, which encloses the Jiangcun Grand Tomb and the mausoleum of Empress Dou [Emperor Wen’s wife]. Based on these findings, the archaeological team believes that the Jiangcun Grand Tomb is similar in layout and scale to the other Western Han emperors’ mausoleums, such as the Chang Mausoleum of Emperor Gaozu, the Yang Mausoleum of Emperor Jing, and the mausoleum of Emperor Wu. Moreover, supported by historical documents, experts finally confirmed that this was the real tomb of Emperor Wen.
 
An end to rumors
Ancient documents roughly indicated that Emperor Wen’s mausoleum was located at Fenghuangzui (lit. phoenix’s beak), a hilltop in the west of the White Deer Plain, but its specific whereabouts had remained obscure.
 
Fenghuangzui looks like the mound of a tomb. There are over ten ancient stone tablets at the foot of Fenghuangzui, one of which was inscribed with the phrase “Ba Mausoleum of Emperor Wen of Han” by Bi Yuanyin, a Qing Dynasty governor of Shaanxi Province. 
 
In the first half of the 20th century, many Chinese and foreign scholars visited Fenghuangzui, and they all believed that Fenghuangzui was the Ba Mausoleum. In the early 21st century, archaeologists explored Fenghuangzui many times, but they didn’t find any tomb-like relics there, nor even any signs of construction.  
 
There have been scholars throughout history doubting the claim that the Ba Mausoleum is located at Fenghuangzui, partly because the imperial mausoleums of the Western Han Dynasty were usually built on the edge of the loess tableland and the entire cemetery was relatively flat. However, Fenghuangzui is 230 meters higher than the lowest point of the cemetery, indicating that it would be difficult to build outer burial pits, ritual buildings, and other facilities. Another reason is that Fenghuangzui is too far away from the mausoleum of Empress Dou. According to the imperial mausoleum traditions of the Han Dynasty, the tombs of the imperial couple should not be far apart. For example, the mausoleums of Emperor Hui and his wife are only 260 meters apart. Emperor Gaozu’s mausoleum is 280 meters away from that of his wife Empress Lyu. However, the mausoleum of Empress Dou and Fenghuangzui are more than 2,000 meters apart.
 
More and more archaeological researchers began to speculate that the Jiangcun Grand Tomb is actually the Mausoleum of Emperor Wen. “Although we are somewhat sure about this, we have to let the evidence speak. We need more archaeological evidence before officially announcing this news,” Ma Yongying said.
 
The Jiangcun Grand Tomb is 800 meters away from the mausoleum of Empress Dou. A rammed earth wall encloses the Jiangcun Grand Tomb and Empress Dou’s mausoleum in a large cemetery, which fits the Han tradition that the imperial couple should be buried together. These characteristics are also consistent with what is written in the Records of the Grand Historian. A large number of precious cultural relics unearthed from the Ba Mausoleum also support the ancient belief that the imperial mausoleum “should mimic the real Western Han Empire.” These discoveries put an end to the long-running rumor that the location of the Ba Mausoleum is in Fenghuangzui.
 
The discovery of the real location of the Ba Mausoleum was also related to a case in which the tomb of Lady Gouyi, a concubine of Emperor Wu of Han, was raided in 2016. After one year of investigation, Chinese police caught 91 suspected tomb raiders and antique smugglers, and retrieved more than 1,100 cultural relics. Many of the retrieved relics were found to be related to the Jiangcun Grand Tomb. 
 
At an academic seminar five years ago, people joked that tomb raiders were the real discoverers of the Ba Mausoleum. This claim was dismissed by Jiao Nanfeng in a firm voice: “[Archaeological] discovery is not simply seeing, let alone digging or tomb robbery; [archaeological] discovery is seeing, understanding, and making scientific explanations.” Tomb raiding is a serious crime, and often causes irreversible damage to historical culture. A large amount of historical and cultural information may be wiped out in the process of looting. Archaeologists are the protectors of history and culture, and archaeological research is carried out on the basis of cultural relics protection in a planned and scientific way. 
 
Due to a shortage of professionals and huge workloads, many important sites and tombs have been robbed and destroyed before archaeological exploration. Only when the state strengthens the protection of cultural relics and archaeological research, and enables cultural relic protection and archaeological investigations to anticipate infrastructure projects and looters, can the protection of cultural heritage move past the current passive situation.
 
 
 
Edited by REN GUANHONG