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Tomb Treasures

New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty
Feb 17 —
May 28, 2017

Deceased kings were often interred in coffins whose surfaces were painted in lacquer and inlaid with jade planks and circular bi disks. Their heads were rested on pillows of jade, and their ears and noses were stuffed with small columns of jade to prevent their vital essences from escaping. It’s likely that jade articles were also placed in their mouths, hands and anuses for the same reason.

Inside or Out? A Coffin Controversy
Discovered just over 20 years ago in the Jiangsu region’s Chu mausoleums in Xuzhou, the jade coffin on display in Tomb Treasures was reassembled with an elaborate pattern of jade pieces decorating its exterior. In contrast, a coffin excavated more recently from the Jiangdu mausoleum at Dayun Mountain, where most of the material in Tomb Treasures originates, was reconstructed with the jade pattern lining the inside — causing some scholars to argue that, since the stone is meant to protect the body, the Chu coffin’s jade should line its interior as well. Others believe that regional variations or the different ranks of the deceased could explain the inconsistent construction methods.

Coffin, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. unearthed from the Tomb of the King of Chu, Shizi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Jade, wood, and lacquer. Xuzhou Museum, EX2017.1.76. Photograph © Xuzhou Museum.
Did the earlier archaeologists make a mistake? There’s no definitive answer so far, says excavator Li Yinde, since the records from the Shizi Mountain excavation do not provide sufficient detail. “Jade coffins are not made to look the same due to regional variations,” he explains. “Current evidence shows that jade could either be put inside to protect the deceased or outside to be visually attractive.”

Visit the exhibition and offer your take! Share your opinion using #TombTreasures @AsianArtMuseum.