Always one to be fascinated by the unearthing of ancient artefacts, I was drawn to a story this morning in Xinhua about the discovery of three Ming-dynasty (1368-1644) coffins on a building site in the city of Taizhou 泰州, Jiangsu province, just half an hour’s bus-ride from my beloved Grand Canal of China.
All three coffins were “occupied”, as it were, but one in particular contained the body of a 50 or 60-year-old woman in an extraordinary state of preservation. This part of China is flat and wet, and being buried more than two metres down the sealed coffin had slowly filled with water which seems to have preserved the tiniest details of the corpse and its grave goods. Photos of the contents show clothing and shrouds that could have been fished out of a Chinese laundry this very morning, while the woman’s skin, hair and even eyelashes are no less flawless than a body that Inspector Morse might have dragged fresh out of the Cherwell.
She’s wearing a cap, has thick-soled cotton boots on, and is laid on a cotton quilt. Her head was rested on a wooden pillow (the Chinese traditionally used wooden or even stone pillows rather than the West’s rather effete goose-down ones), and she had been provided with pottery vessels for the afterlife. There were no written texts in the coffin, such as incantations for the protection or guidance of the soul, which might be expected of people of high-status, and it’s guessed that this was just an average Ming-dynasty laobaixing woman, quite unlike the empresses whose bodies were preserved in the imperial tombs north of Beijing. All the more interesting for that, in my opinion.