The mummy of Lady Dai is in such spectacular condition she’s sometimes called China’s Sleeping Beauty. At over 2,100 years old, she might be looking good for her age, but scientific studies have shown that this noblewoman lived a lavish lifestyle that took a toll on her health.
The tomb of Lady Dai, also known as Xin Zhui, was accidentally discovered by construction workers in the 1960s in Mawangdui near Changsha, China. With the help of hundreds of school kids, archaeologists excavated the site in the early 1970s and revealed three tombs dedicated to the family of Li Cang, the Marquis of Dai, a nobleman who boasted significant power in the western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE).
Buried in a separate tomb to Li Cang was his wife Lady Dai who died in 163 BCE, as well as thousands of artifacts from the ancient Han dynasty, such as delicate silk manuscripts, lacquered vessels, and herbal medicines made with cinnamon, magnolia bark, and peppercorns.
A third tomb contained the body of a younger man, possibly their son or Lady Dai’s brother. Oddly, however, the remains of Li Cang and the young man had well and truly succumbed to the forces of time, unlike Lady Dai.
Time for my close up. Image credit: Gary Todd/Flickr/Public Domain
At around 2,100 years old, her mummy is in exceptional condition. Her veins are still filled with congealed blood and most of her soft tissues remain intact. Her wrinkled body looks more like a fresh cadaver on a mortuary table than an ancient mummy from an ancient dynasty.
There are a number of clues as to how she’s stayed in such good shape over all these years. As per Archaeology in 2009, the body was found cocooned within the innermost of four lacquered coffins that were draped in a beautiful silk painting. Paired with this, her body was dressed in 18 layers of silk and linen clothing. Altogether, this shielded her incredibly well from outside forces that could have deteriorated her earthly remains.
The coffin was also filled with a strange clear liquid that turned brown after being exposed to air. Some simply believe this liquid is her bodily fluids, but others suspect it might have been a traditional Chinese herbal solution that perhaps helped with the preservation process.
You gotta hand it to her, she looks great. Image credit: Gary Todd/Flickr/Public Domain
Chinese scientists gave the body a detailed autopsy that revealed this noblewoman was in pretty poor health. It looks like she died around 50 years of age from a heart attack shortly after eating a meal. This was likely a result of her lavish and lazy lifestyle, the researchers wrote, that left her very overweight and suffering from diabetes.
“As judged from her richly furnished tomb and the fact that she was a noblewoman with many servants waiting on her, she probably did not need to exert herself,” one Chinese scientist wrote.
The study of her body also revealed her last meal. Within her esophagus and stomach, they found over 100 musk melon seeds, which the researchers believe she “gulped down… in a great haste.”
Today, the mummy of Lady Dai is housed at the Hunan Provincial Museum alongside glass jars containing her organs. It’s often said that people visit the body with the belief that this ancient woman holds some kind of secret to longevity. Looking at her remains, it’s easy to see why.