October 19, 2012

Inside Beidongshan: the greatest of the Han tombs (part 2)

My determination to visit the tomb of Beidongshan took me back in 2010, this time with two colleagues from the Fitzwilliam Museum. We went to measure the objects in the museum, checking the condition and preparing the display cases for our 2012 exhibition. The director of Xuzhou Museum finally got confirmation from the local power station that enabled us to enter the tomb in the next hour, so we had to rush to the tomb from the other side of the city.  And this time, I finally entered the tomb that I know so well from my study of Han archaeology!

After passing the remaining huge blocking stones that were pulled out by the tomb robbers, there is a very steep set of stairs leading to a lower level with a large entertainment room, arsenal, kitchen, well, lavatory, storage chamber and ice cellar. It was a place designed for eternal happiness—eating, drinking and dancing without end. On the ground floor, there are four chambers that lead through to the rear chamber.

The large numbers of coins were found in these chambers. Behind these four chambers, an even narrower tomb passage leads to the rear chamber that was also blocked with huge stones. Unfortunately, the tomb robbers had succeeded in breaking through this defence too.

Only a few personal belongings had survived, including an unusual design of jade pendant in the shape of an archer’s ring and a jade bear used as a mat weight. Beyond the second group of huge stone blocks, a small corridor leads to two lavatories next to the rear chamber; this provided a lavatory for the king and possibly his spouse also, whilst the second lavatory would have been intended for his guests and servants.  There is no concrete evidence to identify the owner of this tomb, but the seals and coins help to date the tomb to between 175 and 128 BC.

For me, the incredible structure and artefacts of Beidongshan illustrates the majesty of the tombs of the Han dynasty.  It really is an undergraound palace; the treasures found within it are some of the most remarkable ever uncovered.

The gently smiling jade bear that was found in the lower rear chambers is also one of the last items that you will encounter in The Search for Immortality.  The bear marks the mysterious and enigmatic quality of these objects buried deep in these ghostly palaces of the dead, their personality still present and speaking to us after 2000 years.

Jade weight in the form of a bear

Jade weight in the form of a bear

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