FOR more than 2,000 years, little was known about Xin Zhui, the wife of a Chinese ruler. Now we know she enjoyed the finest of everything her civilisation had to offer and luxury may have been her downfall.
The discovery of her mummified corpse and burial chamber has provided a remarkable insight into the life and times of a woman now known as Lady Dai.
Scientists say her body is the best-preserved mummy ever seen, surpassing any from Egypt, and leading to her being nicknamed the ‘Botox Babe’.
Teams from America and New Zealand have built up a picture of a woman once renowned for her beauty, but whose life of ease married to the ruler of the Han imperial fiefdom of Dai was ultimately her undoing.
They say being waited on hand and foot and enjoying a diet rich in fatty foods including dog and oxen may have contributed to her death from heart disease.
‘She was an aristocrat,’ said Dr Charles Higham, an anthropologist from the University of Otago in New Zealand. ‘There would have been a lot of music, a lot of incense. There would have been servants at your beck and call. It must have been jolly good fun.’ Scientists are now trying to unravel the secrets of the embalming technique used to preserve her body so successfully.
Her coffin contained a reddish liquid, the ingredients of which are not fully known, but which may have been considered the ‘elixir of immortality’ in ancient China.
Lady Dai lived in the Western Chinese dynasty of Han, which existed between 206BC and 24AD. As the wife of the Marquis of Han, she was a woman of great wealth and status.
Her tomb was discovered in 1971 by workers digging an air raid shelter on the outskirts of Changsha in Hunan Province. She died, aged around 50, between 178 and 145BC and was buried with 1,000 items including lacquer dinnerware and fine fabrics.
Two thirds of the artefacts were related to food and drink including 30 bamboo caskets containing pears, plums, soy beans, sliced locusts, swans, dogs, pheasants, pigs, oxen and other animals.
There were also lists of her favourite recipes.
Lady Dai’s medical profile is the most complete ever assembled on an ancient.
But autopsies on her body in which all her organs were perfectly preserved and her brain remained intact despite having shrunk to half size have revealed the downside of her fondness for the high life.
Pathologists concluded she had been ‘a great belle with cherry- like lips and oval eyes’ in her youth.
But it was obvious her beauty deserted her before death. She was also badly overweight, at almost 11 stone.
X-rays reveal she had a fused disc in her spine, which would have caused severe back pain and clogged coronary arteries. She had gallstones and experts believe one of them, stuck in her bile duct, may have caused her already weakened heart to stop.
Experts have been astonished at how well her body has stood the test of time.
Her skin is still soft to the touch, her limbs can still be bent, she retains almost a full head of hair and she even has blood in her veins, identified as type A.
Today the corpse is on display at the Hunan Museum in Changsha. She has become as famous in China as Tutankhamun is in Egypt.
Anthropologist Professor John Verano said: ‘What really sets her apart is the flexibility of her limbs.
‘When I first saw it, it made me jump.
I thought “Don’t do that” because you know you’re going to break that arm right off.
‘No one’s found anything remotely equivalent to this. If she’d only been buried a year I would be amazed at how well-preserved she was.
‘To think that she’s been buried for 2,000 years and is in this condition is baffling.’ Dr Higham said: ‘This is the bestpreserved ancient body ever found.
This is something you never find even in Egypt. Tutankhamun, for example, comes out as a sort of shrivelled up little corpse compared with the extraordinary preservation of this woman.’ The tomb offers several clues.
Lady Dai’s corpse was swaddled in 20 layers of fine silk, which would have suffocated the bacteria which normally devour the body soon after death.
The body was also inside four coffins and placed in a 20ft square chamber so cool it acted like a natural refrigerator.
Five tons of charcoal were piled on top followed by 4ft of clay and 50ft of earth to ensure the tomb was ‘vacuum sealed for eternity’.
Some scientists suspect the real key to her preservation, however, may lie in the reddish liquid in which the body was immersed.
If so, the secret may have died with her. Tests have revealed it is mildly acidic and contains magnesium and salt, but have so far failed to identify all the contents.
Scientists believe there may have been another crucial ingredient added to the liquid before it was poured into the coffin an ‘elixir of immortality’ that would preserve the body eternally.
‘Like her contemporaries, she would have spent a lot of her life planning for her afterlife,’ said Dr Higham.
‘They were obsessed with it and it was quite obvious that, having lived a life of considerable elegance and luxury, Xin Zhui would want to continue to do so after death.’ Lady Dai’s story is told in Diva Mummy on the National Geographic Channel at 10pm tomorrow.