Robbers looted the tomb of a Chinese prince about 2,000 years ago, but left a fascinating jigsaw puzzle for modern archaeologists and now culture vultures at a British museum where the burial site's artifacts will soon be exhibited.
Prince Liu Yingke of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) was buried wearing a suit made of more than 4,000 pieces of jade and sewn with gold threads. Britons will get a rare chance to see it and a second Chinese jade burial suit, as well as another 180 relics dating back to the Han Dynasty, when they go on show at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge from May 5 to November 11.
Together, the touring exhibits will provide great insight into ancient Chinese burial custom. Han Chinese believed jade could prevent the body from decaying.
The tomb was robbed shortly after the body was interred. The thieves drew out the gold wire, but left the jade tablets, so precious that only royalty could own it. The robbers would have feared the suspicion of being captured with jade -- and the death penalty that would have come with it.
The jade tablets scattered in the tomb had to be pieced back together by the archaeologists who unearthed the prince's mausoleum on Mount Shizishan in Xuzhou city of east China's Jiangsu Province in 1995.
The intricate jigsaw puzzle was not solved until 2003. It took six experts 20 months to restore the jade clothes, with 4,248 jade tablets and gold wires weighing 1,576 grams.
After 2,000 years underground, the jade tablets had broken into small pieces, 7,000 of which were collected by archaeologists. "Matching up the broken jade was the most time-consuming work," says Li Yinde, curator of the Xuzhou Museum, the permanent home of Prince Liu Yingke's suit.
"Sometimes, experts couldn't find the right piece for hours. It needed inspiration in solving the puzzle."
The skeleton of the prince provided scientific basis for his suit's restoration. Experts inferred that he was 1.73 meters tall, and they also calculated his shoe size and the width of his shoulders.
They also restored the prince's coffin, the outside of which is embedded with 2,095 jade tablets. More than 1,700 gold nails used to decorate the coffin had been stolen, but cost has unfortunately prevented them from being replaced. A cargo plane was used to transport the ancient casket to Britain. At 2.8 meters long, 1.1 meters wide and 1.08 meters tall, it is rarely exhibited overseas.
Liu Yingke was the nephew of Emperor Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty. Since no tombs of Han emperors have been unearthed, the prince's burial site represents the highest-level mausoleum of the Han Dynasty excavated so far.
"This jade burial suit sewn with fine gold wire is the oldest and the most exquisite one of its kind found in China. Relics of jade clothes have been discovered at more than 70 sites across the country. But most of them have about 2,000 jade tablets each, much less than this one," Li says.
Such jade burial suits are classified into four types based on the material of the threads: gold, silver, copper or silk. The second jade suit to be shown as part of the exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum -- after it was recovered from a site in Guangzhou -- involves silk threads.
Historians didn't know of the existence of jade clothes sewn with silk before archaeologists excavated the tomb of the king of Nanyue in Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province, in 1983. Nanyue (204 - 111 B.C) was a kingdom existing in the early period of the Han Dynasty, covering today's Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan in south China and the northern part of Vietnam.
"The jade was scattered over and around the corpse of the king when it was discovered. Study of the remains suggests this jade suit was sewn together by red silk thread," says Wu Lingyun, curator of the Museum of the Nanyue King Mausoleum in Guangzhou.
Experts spent three years in this case restoring the suit, comprised of 2,291 bits of jade. All the pieces are original, since the tomb had never been robbed.
Based on a gold seal found in the mausoleum, and which will also be shown in Cambridge, archaeologists determined the resident of the tomb was Zhao Mo, grandson of Zhao Tuo, founder of the Nanyue Kingdom.
Zhao Tuo is thought to have lived to the age of at least 112, but Zhao Mo was not so lucky, dying at the age of 43. Many relics from his tomb prove his poor health. In a box near the king's corpse, archaeologists found a small silver case containing more than a dozen pills.
"We cannot identify the ingredients of the pills, since they have been carbonized," says Wu. "But we guess they were from the West, because all the Chinese medicines at that time were herb soups."
The shape of the medicine case and the decoration patterns on it are different from traditional Chinese styles, but similar to those of Persia, Wu notes.
Gold buttons, used as clothing decoration, were also unearthed in the tomb. Small beads and gold threads are welded on the buttons, but the welding points can only be seen under a powerful magnifying glass, a discovery which -- like the Persian styling of the medicine case -- supports a theory that these Chinese royals traded abroad.
"At that time, China hadn't mastered fine welding technology, which originated in ancient Greece. The gold buttons, the medicine case and many other relics found in the tomb are evidence that cultural exchange between Guangzhou and overseas can be traced back to 2,000 years ago," Xu says.