In July 2013, a friend and colleague of mine asked me to tag along on an archaeological dig in a suburb of the eastern city of Yiwu. The site was originally a small hillside cemetery, its top dotted with modern graves and older tombs concentrated at the base. Now, the whole area was being leveled to make way for a real estate development. I arrived just in time to see a construction loader claw at the ground — and slice off the corner of a brick tomb. Four or five shirtless migrant workers swung into action and began excavating the plot as a crowd of onlookers gathered around and began debating what might lie hidden within.
An hour later, the excavation was complete. The tomb contained a partial skeleton of a woman from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), but no memorial epitaph to provide a clue as to her identity. The onlookers shook their heads, sighed, and began to disperse. Some, annoyed by what they called the “Qing beggar,” bemoaned the lack of interesting artifacts and complained about having their work interrupted on such a hot day. Others wore solemn looks that suggested an awareness of what a pity it was that she’d been disturbed in the first place.
The woman’s bones were put into a plastic bag and placed by the side of the road. I wanted to find a secluded spot to rebury her nearby, but the contractor told me that the homes in the area were going for upwards of a million yuan, meaning she’d be unlikely to rest in peace for long.
Archaeologists in the eastern province of Zhejiang often talk about the province’s “Three Golden Flowers”: Hemudu, an important Neolithic archaeological site in south China built between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago; Liangzhu, a treasure trove of neolithic artifacts and a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating from 3300-2300 B.C.; and the Yue and Longquan porcelain kilns that earned the province the nickname “The Home of Celadon.”
My own specialty, grave sites, is less glamorous. Yet, after a decade in the late 1990s and early 2000s working on digs in Hemudu, Liangzhu, and the Yue kiln, I found myself increasingly drawn to the more puzzle-like, quasi-spiritual nature of tomb digs.
Tombs are places of death — a taboo subject even in modern-day China — but they are also full of life in ways that bigger digs are not. The study of prehistoric sites like Hemudu and Liangzhu is based on communities rather than named people. Tombs are different. Each one contains a specific individual, and every burial site takes you back hundreds of years or even millennia. Their occupants were once flesh and blood; to excavate their graves is to communicate with them, speak for them, and bring their stories to life.
Of course, there are reasons why historical communities are far more popular among Zhejiang archaeologists than grave sites. Although Zhejiang was an economic center for centuries, few historically renowned figures are buried here, and our archaeological discoveries rarely grab the attention of the public. Second, tombs from the most notable period in Zhejiang history, the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), are typically simple and unadorned. There are no stone carvings, murals, or other wall decorations, and few sophisticated burial objects to attract the attention of outsiders like art historians.
But to see Song tombs as boring is to miss their greater meaning. Tombs from the pre-Qin (221-206 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) dynasties are filled with a myriad of items from the deceased’s everyday lives. The Song, however, saw the rise of the relatively austere Neo-Confucianists, who eschewed earthly possessions and discarded many earlier superstitions about the afterlife. That their tombs tend to be empty except for a few personal items such as writing implements and clothes is not a sign of poverty, but rationality in the face of death.
If there’s an irony inherent to my line of work, it’s that, ideally, I’d never have the chance to dig at all. Contemporary Chinese field archaeology can be divided into two types of excavations: “Proactive” digs are conducted to solve certain academic questions, while “recovery” excavations are carried out to salvage historical remains from the country’s massive building industry.
The excavation of most Song dynasty tombs belongs to the latter category. Over the past few decades, China has urbanized rapidly, while extensive highway, railway, and subway developments have unearthed ruins and burial sites all over the country. Those of us working on recovery excavations are essentially tasked with putting out fires, recovering artifacts from the ground before they’re paved over.
The coffin of Zhao Boyun in transit. From China Silk Museum
Not all of these excavations are as dispiriting as the one outside Yiwu. During the weeklong National Day holiday in 2016, a resident of Yutou Village in the Huangyan District of Taizhou City uncovered a tomb containing a coffin while doing some construction work on his property. Luckily, the villager recognized what he’d found and reported the site to the proper authorities.
When I arrived, I quickly saw that there was no way to open the coffin; it would need to be transported to a nearby museum for a full inspection. When the villagers heard that the coffin needed to be taken away, they started looking for a truck. I told them not to rush, as I’d first need to drain the water inside. They looked confused. The coffin seemed completely intact. Why would there be water? But after a coffin is buried, underground water seeps in through the texture of the wood. If left inside during the 30-kilometer drive to the museum, the contents would slosh around, damaging the remains — a lesson I learned the hard way earlier in my career.
I borrowed a drill and bored a hole in the bottom of the coffin. The water began pouring out. At first, I thought it might take around half an hour, but there were no signs of it stopping an hour later. It took three holes and six hours for it to drain completely.
The eight layers of clothing discovered in Zhao Boyun’s tomb. From China Silk Museum
When we got the coffin back to the museum and opened it up, we found a body dressed in eight layers of clothing and surrounded by a trove of garments including silk, gauze, and embroidered fabrics. It was a full Song dynasty noble’s wardrobe — an unprecedented and unique discovery.
The coffin’s occupant was Zhao Boyun (1155-1216), a descendant of Zhao Kuangyin (927-976) and the founding emperor of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). His tomb was the only well-preserved example of its kind dating from the Song dynasty in Zhejiang province that had not been robbed before excavation.
Tomb excavators rarely get the headlines, and our work is far from glamorous, but there’s something special about the chance, however rare, to wander freely between the realms of life and death.
As told to Sixth Tone’s Wu Haiyun.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: An item of clothing discovered in Zhao Boyun’s tomb on display at an exhibition in Beijing, 2019. VCG)