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Groundbreaking Textile Discovery

Edited from Mathaba News, 1 August 2007. Updated 21 June 2017

In 2007 Chinese archaeologists reported on finding textiles in a mysterious tomb dating back nearly 2,500 years in Eastern Jiangxi Province. At the time this was thought to be the oldest such tomb to have been discovered in China's history.

The textiles, which were well-preserved and featured stunning dyeing and weaving technologies, were expected to add a much more detailed layer to the history of China's textile industry, according to Wang Yarong, a researcher at the textiles preservation centre of the Beijing-based Capital Museum.

As an archaeologist who had been following findings in the textile sector since the 1970s, she was of the opinion that Chinese anthropologists suspected the textile industry had burgeoned in distant periods of history, and that this was the first piece of concrete evidence to support their hypothesis.

Coffin discovery

Wang and her colleagues found more than twenty pieces of fine silk, flax, and cotton cloth in twenty-two of a total of forty-seven coffins which were unearthed from the tomb in Lijia Village in Jing'an County. Most of them were fine fabrics, with the largest piece being 130cm long and 52cm wide, woven using complicated techniques.

Beijing University's Professor Zhang Xiaomei found with the use of infrared equipment that a piece of cotton cloth was partly red and partly black. The conclusion was that it was dyed red with vermilion.

Historical records show that the Arabians were able to produce vermilion in the eighth century AD and that Europeans learned the methods from them in the seventeenth century. Yet the tomb in which these fabrics were found is believed to date back to the Middle Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 BC).

The tomb, sixteen metres long, 11.5 metres wide, and three metres deep, was found in December 2006 and the excavation was completed only at the end of July 2007. It contained the largest group of coffins ever discovered in a single tomb and its excavation was dubbed 'the most important archaeological project of the year' by cultural experts and the Chinese media alike.

By the end of the work, experts had unearthed more than two hundred heritage pieces from the tomb, including copperware, jade, gold, and handicrafts made from bamboo: a well-preserved fan 37cm long and 25cm wide, and a bamboo mat 180cm long and 80cm wide.

Sacrificial maids

Seven of the coffins contained human skeletons, four of which were identified as healthy females aged around twenty, as reported by Wei Dong, an archaeologist from north-eastern China's Jilin University.

Wei and other members of the research team assumed that the four young women were maids who had been buried alive in sacrifice alongside a dead aristocrat, a centuries-old custom in ancient China and elsewhere. Five other coffins contained bodily tissues, which scientists identified as being human brains which had shrunk to the size of a fist but which had retained their original structure.

Scientists had yet to conduct DNA analysis to see whether these people were genetically linked to one another, according to Huang Jinglue, head of the archaeological team. The discovery was a unique one at the time because the skeletons had been well preserved in an area in which the soil was acidic and unsuited to the preservation of human bodies.



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