The quest for immortality

May 22, 2009

 © Photo credit: taylorandayumi

The First Emperor of China, it is said, became pre-occupied with longevity toward the end of his life. He traveled his empire in search of “medicine” which would help him achieve this goal. Unfortunately for the Emperor, his medical advisors steered him the wrong way, suggesting he ingest heavy metals (like mercury) in order to live long and prosper.

And so the Emperor died at the age of 50. As is typical of absolute rulers, in life he commanded absolute loyalty, ordering the construction of a massive pyramid-shaped burial monument. Because of the sheer size of this structure, it was never lost. According to descriptions left about a century after the death of the emperor, the core of the pyramid hides a massive burial chamber, housing the emperor’s tomb and a reconstruction of his empire. All of this was executed in great detail, so it is said, down to the representation of rivers, lakes, oceans (filled with mercury) and faceted gemstones in the ceiling to represent the stars at night. The whole thing was illuminated with oil lamps said to be engineered to burn forever.

The emperor’s dynasty did not survive his demise, as it went down in the general uprising and turmoil that followed his death. His successor, the Second Emperor, only lasted a few years. Whether or not the tomb really exists, and still holds the remains of the emperor, is unknown. China’s archaeologists are awaiting the development of new technology and ways to deal with high levels of mercury in the area before tackling what promises to be a daunting task. Recent reports of engaging the services of robots in tomb investigations in the Xi’an area may portent some movements toward finally tackling the emperor’s tomb.

It is hard to predict what they will find; we could be in for quite a surprise if another Chinese “mummy” barely one century younger than the First Emperor is anything to go by. Known as Lady Dai, her remains were found in extraordinary state of preservation.

In 1971, a Han Dynasty tomb was found during the construction of an air raid shelter in the city of Changsha. Aside from over a thousand perfectly preserved objects, workers also encountered what is claimed to be one of the world’s best preserved corpses. Meet Xin Zhui, wife of the ruler of the Han imperial fiefdom of Dai.

 © Photo credit: drs2biz

She died between 178 and 145 BC, about 50 years after the death of the First Emperor. The high quality of the artifacts that surrounded her reflected her wealth and importance in society.  Her body is so well preserved that she can be autopsied. A prominent physical expert, Dr. John Verano of Tulane University, expressed how horrified he initially was when he observed Chinese specialists bending her limbs. You did read this right:  they could still bend the limbs of a 2100-year old “mummy.” 

This preservation allowed an autopsy to be performed with the following results:

All her organs were perfectly preserved; her brain had shrunk to half size, but had remained intact. She had a fused disc in her spine. Undoubtedly she was in pain toward the end of her life. Moreover, a gallstone stuck in her bile duct may have caused her heart to give out.  Her skin was still soft to the touch. Scientists even found blood in her veins. She had type A.

Today Lady Daiis on display at the Hunan Museum in Changsha. As mummies go, hers is incredibly well preserved. Remember, the First Emperor lived in the same time period, preceding Lady Dai by perhaps one or two generations. Given what resources may have been available to the First Emperor, I wonder what his tomb will reveal when it is finally investigated.

Time Magazine recently declared Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor one of the top 5 “must-see” museum exhibitions. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is proud to present this extraordinary archaeological find, deemed the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World, opening today! You can purchase tickets online by clicking here.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

2 responses to “The quest for immortality”

  1. Astrid Leriche says:

    Just saw the videoclip: looks like a great exhibition ^_^
    We’re all looking forward to seeing it when we come over in july.


    Your niece and company (:

  2. Doctor Who says:

    A most fascinating post! =D

    i thought i read on one of the wall plaques (@ the exhibit) that the First Emperor of China, Qin Shin Huang, commissioned his Terra Cotta Warriors at the ripe young age of 13…which suggests, at least to me, that he was paranoid with immortality in his early years.

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