Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    Chinese Researchers Bring Ancient Noblewoman ‘Back to Life’ Using AI

    Scientists were able to create a remarkably lifelike digital avatar of Lady Xin Zhui using remains uncovered in her 2,200-year-old tomb.

    Ever since her tomb was discovered in the 1970s, Lady Xin Zhui has fascinated archaeologists around the world. The ancient noblewoman’s body is remarkably well-preserved — almost like she was frozen in time — leading many to label her China’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

    Now, the world can finally see the 2,200-year-old aristocrat as she would have looked before her death thanks to cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology.

    The Hunan Museum unveiled a digital avatar of Lady Xin Zhui on Friday, which researchers created based on the remains discovered inside her tomb in Changsha, capital of central China’s Hunan province.

    The uncannily lifelike images show the lady as she likely looked at the age of 35: slender, sleek hair tied at the back, and dressed in a shimmering red and gold robe.

    According to Yuan Zhongbiao, an expert who worked on the project, the team was even able to replicate the clothes and makeup Xin Zhui likely wore based on traces found on her remains.

    Little is known about the life of Lady Xin Zhui, who was born during the 2nd century B.C. She was the wife of the high-ranking official Li Cang, also known as the Marquis of Dai, and archeologists believe she died at around 50 years of age from an illness.

    For over 2,000 years she languished in obscurity, but then her tomb was discovered entirely by chance in the 1970s. Construction workers stumbled on the site while trying to build an underground warehouse beneath a hospital in Changsha.

    When archaeologists excavated the site — known as Mawangdui, or “King Ma’s Mound” — they found that Xin Zhui’s body had survived the centuries almost intact. No other known corpse has ever been preserved for so long without mummification.

    “She was in remarkably good condition — her body was smooth and supple, with soft, elastic tissue beneath the skin. Some of her joints were even movable, her eyelashes and nasal hair were still intact, and she still had visible fingerprints,” Duan Xiaoming, director of the Hunan Museum, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

    The corpse’s survival is a result of the design of the tomb, according to the Hunan Museum. Xin Zhui’s body was kept in a four-layer lacquer coffin buried inside a 16-meter-deep airtight pit, which largely kept out bacteria. Some preservative liquids including mercury compounds were also found inside her coffin.

    However, the lady’s face was unrecognizable when she was found, leading Chinese researchers to spend decades trying to recreate her original appearance.

    In 2002, the Hunan Museum hired a criminologist, Zhao Chengwen, to try and restore Xin Zhui’s face using a simulation system often used by police to identify suspects and deceased victims. But the resulting portraits did not provide the kind of vivid detail the researchers were hoping for.

    The rapid development of AI in recent years has opened up new possibilities. Last October, the museum launched a new project, enlisting a top-notch team of experts in craniofacial reconstruction.

    “Given the limitations of medical imaging technology when Xin Zhui was unearthed, only X-ray examinations were conducted on her skull. Nonetheless, the preserved images served as crucial references for determining her cranial and facial features,” Yuan Zhongbiao, a member of the reconstruction team, told Xinhua.

    The team fed the data from the corpse’s skull into a craniofacial database, allowing them to create a detailed sculpture depicting Xin Zhui’s appearance. Changsha Digital Whale, an AI company that partnered with Hunan Museum on the project, was then able to convert this sculpture into an ultra-realistic, three-dimensional avatar.

    The final product offers a strikingly realistic vision of how Xin Zhui would have looked during her lifetime, down to the texture of her hair and skin. The team was even able to recreate her clothing and makeup using artifacts unearthed from the tomb.

    According to Zhang Rihui, general manager of Changsha Digital Whale, the company created two separate versions of the avatar: one depicting Lady Xin Zhui at the time of her death and another simulating her appearance as a 35-year-old.

    The Hunan Museum plans to turn the avatar into a fully interactive AI bot, which visitors will be able to communicate with via displays installed inside the museum. The new exhibit — created to mark the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Mawangdui excavations — is due to be unveiled later this year.

    China’s archaeologists are increasingly leveraging AI in their research, using new technologies to restore ancient relics faster and more accurately than ever before.

    Last March, an archaeological institute in the southwestern Sichuan province partnered with researchers at tech giant Tencent to reconstruct a damaged artifact unearthed at the famous Sanxingdui site, just outside the province’s capital Chengdu. A recreation of the intact bronze statue, which depicts a kneeling figure carrying a vessel, was pieced together using AI-powered computer analysis.

    (Header image: A digital avatar of Lady Xin Zhui. Xinhua)