The Mystery of Lady Dai’s Preserved Mummy

Nov 10, 2018 0 comments

Believe it or not, this grotesque figure is considered to be one of the world’s best preserved mummies.

While her face looks swollen and deformed, her skin is still soft to the touch, and there are no signs of rigor mortis anywhere—her arms and legs can still bend. Even her internal organs are intact and there is still blood in her veins. While other mummies tend to crumble at the slightest movement, the mummy of Lady Dai is so well-kept that doctors were able to perform an autopsy more than 2,100 years after her death. Not only were they able to reconstruct her death, but her life as well. They even determined her blood type—Type A. The autopsy of Lady Dai is arguably the most complete medical profile ever compiled on an ancient individual.


The mummy of Lady Dai.

Lady Dai, or Xin Zhui, was the aristocratic wife of a Han Dynasty nobleman Li Cang. There was no doubt she lived an extravagant life—her tomb was filled with luxuries that only the wealthiest of her era could afford. These include hundreds of richly embroidered silk garments, skirts, dainty mittens, a silk sachet filled with various spices, flowers, and fragrant reeds, boxes of cosmetics, more than a hundred lacquer ware, musical instruments and statuettes of musicians, even prepared meals and more than a thousand other items.

“These objects show that Lady Dai lived a luxurious life, which she enjoyed very much,” says Willow Weilan Hai Chang, director of the China Institute Gallery in New York City, where some of the objects recovered from her tomb was displayed at an exhibition in 2009. “She wanted to maintain the same lifestyle in the afterlife.”

It was this good life she craved for that eventually robbed her of it. Reputedly a beauty in her younger days, Lady Dai indulged herself in every culinary delight (such as scorpion soup) until her diminutive frame buckled under obesity. Art on her funerary banner depicted her leaning on a cane. She might have been unable to walk without it because of her coronary thrombosis and arteriosclerosis that she acquired due to her sedentary lifestyle. She was also found to have—as her autopsy revealed—a fused disc in her spine that would have caused severe back pain and difficulty walking.


Artwork depicting Lady Dai and her attendants on her Funeral banner.

She had several internal parasites, most likely from eating undercooked food or from poor hygiene, suffered from clogged arteries, serious heart disease, osteoporosis and gallstones, one of which lodged in her bile duct and further deteriorated her condition.

Lady Dai died at the age of around fifty from a sudden heart attack, brought about by years of poor health. Her last meal consisted of melons.

Ironically, her tomb contains a stunning amount of information in the form of books and tablets on health, well-being, and longevity. On tablets inscribed with Chinese characters are recipes of various traditional Chinese medicine to treat headache, paralysis, asthma, sexual and other health problems.

Lady Dai’s tomb was found in 1971 at an archeological site named Mawangdui near the Chinese city of Changsha. She was found wrapped in twenty of layers of silk and laid to rest within a series of four nested coffins of decreasing sizes. To keep out air and water, her tomb was packed with charcoal and the top was sealed with several feet of clay. This water tight, air tight space effectively killed any bacteria that might have been inside and helped preserve the body. Archaeologists also found traces of mercury in her coffin, indicating that the toxic metal may have been used as an antibacterial agent. Her body was also found soaked in an unknown liquid that’s slightly acidic, which also prevented bacteria from growing. Some believe that the liquid is actually water from the body rather than some preserving liquid poured into her coffin.


Photo credit: David Schroeter/Flickr


The Lacquer coffin inside which Lady Dai’s remains were found. Photo credit: Wikimedia

How exactly Lady Dai’s body fought decomposition is a mystery, since many bodies buried in similar airtight and watertight environments failed to preserve.

The excavation at Mawangdui and the bodies of Lady Dai, as well as that of her husband and son, is considered one of the major archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. From the construction of the tombs and from the various funerary artifacts archeologists were able to piece together how the aristocrats lived during the Hun period. From the various meals buried inside the tomb, and even from the contents of Lady Dai’s stomach, archeologists were able to reconstruct a surprisingly detailed history of Western Han dynasty’s “diet, agricultural practices, hunting methods, domestication of animals, food production and preparation, recipe cultivation, and insight at a structural level into the development of one of the world’s great and enduring cuisines.”

The body of Lady Dai now rests in the Hunan Provincial Museum, where she can still be visited.


A wax figure of Lady Dai depicting how she might have looked when younger and healthier. Photo credit: Huangdan2060/Wikimedia

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