Mawangdui ( 马王堆; literally: “King Ma’s Mound”) is an archaeological site located in Changsha, China. The site consists of two saddle-shaped hills and contained the tombs of three people from the western Han dynasty (206 BC – 9 AD): Marquis Li Cang, his wife, and a male believed to have been their son.
The tombs were made of large cypress planks. The outside of the tombs were layered with white clay and charcoal. White clay layering originated with Chu burials, while charcoal layering was practiced during the early western Han dynasty in the Changsha area. The tombs contained nested lacquered coffins, a Chu burial custom. The tombs also followed the burial practices dictated by Emperor Wen of Han, containing no jade or precious metals.
The eastern tomb, Tomb no. 1, contained the remains of a woman in her fifties (Lady Dai, personal name Xin Zhui). Her mummified body was so well-preserved that researchers were able to perform an autopsy on her body, which showed that she probably died of a heart attack. Specifically, her diet was too rich in sugars and meats, and she suffered from arterial-coronary problems. Buried with her were skeletons of various food-animals, jujubes, lotus soup, grains and a complete meal including soup, rice and meat skewers on a lacquer set. Researchers found honeydew melon seeds in her stomach, inferring consumption right before death. She outlived the occupants of the other two tombs.
Xin Zhui’s tomb was by far the best preserved of the three. A complete cosmetic set, lacquered pieces and finely woven silk garments with paintings are almost perfectly preserved. Her coffins were painted according to Chu customs and beliefs with whirling clouds interwoven with mystical animals and dragons. The corpse was bound tightly in layers of silk cloth and covered with a wonderfully painted T-shaped tapestry depicting the netherworld, earth and heavens with Chinese mythological characters as well as Xin Zhui. There was also a silk painting showing a variety of exercises researchers call the forerunner of Tai ji.
The western tomb, Tomb no. 2, was the burial site of the first Marquis of Dai, Li Cang (利蒼). He died in 186 BC. The Han dynasty had appointed Li Cang as the chancellor of the Kingdom of Changsha, an imperial fiefdom of Han. This tomb had been plundered several times by grave robbers.
Tomb 3 was directly south of Tomb 1, and contained the tomb of a man in his thirties who died in 168 BC. The occupant is believed to have been a relative of Li Cang and his wife. This tomb contained a rich trove of military, medical, and astronomical manuscripts written on silk.
Highly regarded artifacts in particular were the lacquered wine-bowls and cosmetic boxes, which showcased the craftsmanship of the regional lacquerware industry.