A 300-year-old burial area, in which two bodies were reduced to skeletons while one was perfectly preserved, has left Chinese archaeologists baffled.
When one of the coffins was opened, the man’s face, experts claim, was perfectly preserved. Within hours, however, the face started to go black, and a foul smell began to emanate from the body.
The skin on the corpse – which has now been taken to the local university for study – also turned black. The body is thought to be from the Qing Dynasty. It was unearthed on October 10 on a construction site in a two metre-deep hole in the ground at Xiangcheng in Henan province, central China.
Dr. Lukas Nickel, a specialist in Chinese art and archaeology at SOAS, University of London, told MailOnline that preservations such as these were not intentional. ‘The Chinese did not do any treatment of the body to preserve it as known from ancient Egypt, for instance.
‘They did, however, try to protect the body by putting it into massive coffins and stable tomb chambers. ‘So the integrity of the physical structure of the body was important to them. In early China, at least, one expected the dead person to live on in the tomb.’ Occasionally bodies in the Qing Dynasty were preserved by the natural conditions around the coffin.
In this case, the body may have had a lacquered coffin, covered in charcoal – which was common at the time. This means bacteria would have been unable to get in. Dr. Nickel added that if this was the case, as soon as the air hit the body, the natural process would be for it to turn black and quickly disintegrate.
When the coffin was opened by historians at Xiangcheng said the man’s face was almost normal but within hours it had started to go black, and a foul smell appeared. Historian Dong Hsiung said: ‘The clothes on the body indicate he was a very senior official from the early Qing Dynasty. ‘What is amazing is the way time seems to be catching up on the corpse, aging hundreds of years in a day.’
The Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1912, followed the Ming dynasty and was the last imperial dynasty of China before the creation of the Republic of China. Under the Qing territory, the empire grew to three times its size and the population increased from around 150 million to 450 million.
The present-day boundaries of China are largely based on the territory controlled by the Qing dynasty. Burial rituals in the Qing Dynasty were the responsibility of the eldest son and would have included a large number of officials. Professor Dong proposes an alternative theory for preservation.
‘It’s possible the man’s family used some materials to preserve the body,’ he said. ‘Once it was opened the natural process of decay could really start.’ ‘We are working hard though to save what there is.’
Historian Dong Hsiung said: ‘The clothes on the body indicate he was a very senior official from the early Qing Dynasty. What is amazing is the way time seems to be catching up on the corpse, aging hundreds of years in a day.
The Qing Dynasty, and the preceding Ming Dynasty, are known for their well-preserved corpses. In 2011, a 700-year-old mummy was discovered by chance in excellent condition in eastern China. The corpse of the high-ranking woman believed to be from the Ming Dynasty was stumbled across by a team who were looking to expand a street.
Discovered two metres below the road surface, the woman’s features – from her head to her shoes – retained their original condition, and had hardly deteriorated. The mummy was wearing a traditional Ming dynasty costume, and in the coffin were bones, ceramics, ancient writings, and other relics.
Director of the Museum of Taizhou, Wang Weiyin, said that the mummy’s clothes were made mostly of silk, with a little cotton. Researchers hope the latest finding could help them better understand the Qing dynasty’s funeral rituals and customs, as well as more about how bodies were preserved.