October 12, 2012

Inside Beidongshan: the greatest of the Han tombs (part 1)

James Lin, Exhibition Curator

Beidongshan Tomb

Beidongshan Tomb

The most complicated of all the kings’ tombs in Xuzhou is Beidongshan. The tomb was dug into the side of a hill with a 56m long and 3-4m wide tomb passage. Halfway along the passage are two mounds of earth representing the watch towers at the entrance of a palace. The northern end of the passage was sealed with huge blocking stones, each weighing around 8,000Kg. The main tomb structure resembles the residential section of a royal palace and was painted with cinnabar, a red-coloured ore of mercury sulphide.

Although the tomb had been plundered several times in the past, a great number of objects have been excavated by archaeologists. Robbers did not discover hidden niches in the tombs passage-ways and 224 earthenware tomb guardians painted in vivid red, black and purple survived intact.

However only seventy-three jade plaques, which would have once belonged to the Beidongshan tomb owner’s jade suit, survived.  These were scattered in the main chamber and tomb passages after incursions by local farmers in 1954, resulting in damage and theft.

I had tried to visit this tomb several times, and finally succeeded in 2006. By special arrangement a guard came to unlock the gate for me and Professor Li, the Director of Xuzhou Museum. The ground outside the tomb was used by local farmers to dry their grain. The guard turned on the power so that we could see the structure of the tomb. The earthenware tomb guardians in seven niches had been replaced by replicas as the objects are now kept in the Xuzhou Museum.

A strange thing happened during this visit. Soon after we walked down the tomb passage past the tomb guardians, the power went off and we were plunged into complete darkness. Everyone fell silent, expecting that something might happen. At that moment, I felt that time had turned back to two thousand years ago. There was a deathly chill in the air, and the eerie silence made it all worse. It was a very long moment for me – I didn’t panic, but morbidly I started expecting the ghost of the Chu king would appear so that I would at least be able to see what he looked like. But on the other hand, if it did happen, I was worried that I would be locked inside the tomb with him forever.

The guard tried to switch the lights back on several times, but nothing happened. We had no choice but to feel our way back up and along the damp, slippery walls of the passage and give up our journey to the underground palace. It made me appreciate how brave the tomb robbers were to break into these private tomb mansions without knowing the danger below. No wonder it sometimes cost them their lives.

Part 2 next week.

Filed under: Blog

Leave a Reply