Scientists find emperor’s tomb after centuries of honour for wrong location

A recently excavated tomb changed centuries of belief about the final resting place of an ancient Chinese emperor.
PHOTO: ThePaper

For nearly a thousand years, Chinese people believed an ancient emperor was buried in a mountain outside Xian, the city in northwest China that was once the centre of political power across multiple empires.

It turned out the tomb lied several kilometres away in the valley.

Emperor Wen was the fifth ruler of the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) and was originally believed to have been buried in a mountain named feng huang zui, or "Phoenix's Mouth" in English.

The wrong tomb features 10 stone tablets that have been carved over a period of hundreds of years to honour the ancient monarch. Officials from the Qing dynasty (1636-1912) even established a monument to mark Emperor Wen's Ba Mausoleum, as his final resting place is called.

The correct tomb, which was first discovered in 2017, is 70 metres long and 30 metres deep. The shape, a Chinese-style pyramid called a ya, is reserved for emperors and empresses.

However, the mound had disappeared over the centuries, so it was difficult to tell it was a tomb before excavation.

While the size and style of the monument was an initial clue, the artefacts inside, including official seals and unique figurines, convinced the team it was Wen's final resting place.

"After checking ancient literature, we can conclude that the grave cluster in Jiang Village is Emperor Wen's Ba Mausoleum," said Ma Yongying, a researcher from Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology.

Archaeologists work to excavate Emperor Wen’s tomb. PHOTO: ThePaper

Emperor Wen, born Liu Heng, was the son of the Han dynasty's founding father, Emperor Gao, or Liu Bang.

During his 20-year rule, the economy flourished, and the government focused on developing the region's agricultural output by lowering taxes on farmers.

Almost as important was his ability to create a smooth succession plan as his son, Emperor Jing, was also a well-respected leader.

Wen, who died in 157BC, was famous for his frugality, and legend says he was particularly respectful to his mother.

The first tip that the grave, named Jiangcun, could house royalty was a 2002 auction in the US that featured six pottery items that were believed to have been stolen by tomb raiders and were eventually returned to China.

These figurines were a particularly unique feature of the discovery. PHOTO: ThePaper

Then, about 10 years ago, archaeologists in Shaanxi started to hypothesise that they had the wrong location for the Ba Mausoleum mainly because there had been no traces of man-made construction found on Pheonix's Mouth mountain.

A 30-metre-deep grave cluster in the nearby Jiang Village, about two kilometres away from the mountain, caught experts' attention after more than 1,000 pottery figurines and 3,000 artefacts made of gold, silver, copper, iron and pottery were excavated from those pits.

The high quality of those wares, and the large scale of the graves, hinted at the special identity of the tomb's owner.

Ba Mausoleum was named after the adjacent Ba River. Emperor Wen was one of few emperors of the Han dynasty who was not buried in the Xianyangyuan Mountains near Xian, a location selected by Liu Bang as the royal family's burial ground.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.