(Click for audio version)
…if Hubei museum’s major drawcard is the massive, iconic bells from the tomb of Zenghouyi, then Hunan museum’s major drawcard is a 2,200 year-old woman.
Yep, this museum’s main attraction is a mummy. Her whole tomb was unearthed only in 1972 – pretty recently, and not far from where she is now – and she’s noteworthy because of her stunning state of preservation. Unlike the Egyptians, who generally remove the organs ‘n’ stuff before wrapping ‘em up, she went in as is, and, apparently, when she went from the tomb to the operating table back in the early 1970’s, they found her flesh still red, and all her organs more or less intact. Right now she’s lying in a glass case on a ground floor, and you see her by looking down from above, and she’s a damn striking sight when you first lay eyes on her.
I remember in high school reading about the “peat men” and “bog men” from around the world, and being macabrely attracted to them, and I guess this chronologically gifted woman (who apparently died after choking on a melon seed, despite having an unenviable list of medical conditions trying to get to her first) had the same kind of fascinating effect on me. Another significant thing about her is that I’ve heard that a few “national treasures” of China’s museums – including the bells in Hubei – are merely replicas, and the originals are in Beijing or Shanghai museums (or destroyed by revolutions/invasions/civil wars etc). To somewhat counter this, I asked a few people about this mummy before seeing her, and they all reckon that this mummy isn’t a replica…so there you go, I’ve seen a bona fide, no shit, fair bloody dinkum Chinese mummy.
It felt kinda odd taking photos of her…but, well, everyone else was doing it, so I started doing it too (another noticeable thing was how lax they were about people taking photos, even though “no camera” signs were everywhere – another cultural difference I guess). For those curious about the actual plausibility of her state of preservation – well, the Chinese love putting coffins in other coffins, and that one in another one…so this mummy was in three coffins, the largest of which was a massive wooden block about three and a half/four metres tall (which is on display in a separate room)…but, most significantly, apparently before burying the whole gin lot of coffins, they surrounded the outer one with a layer of charcoal, then water and clay. And, of course, on top of that (literally) the tomb itself was in a hill (in fact they thought it was just a hill for hundreds of years until one day someone moseyed into it), so those factors helped her biologically stay put…if it can be put that way.
And, if that wasn’t already enough, it seems that they used mercury to preserve people back then (or at least the rich ones) – and the fact that they used such a poisonous substance is one of the main reasons why the tomb of China’s first emperor (the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), thirty k’s east of Xi’an) has yet to be opened.
So bugger face creams, masks and cosmetics – put yourself in an anaerobic environment, pump yourself full of mercury and you’ll look good for centuries.
Another fascinating part of this museum was called “Ten significant archaeological things in Hunan” or something, and it was interesting to see that they’re still finding stuff, some as late as 1996, with some aerial pics of archaeological sites with a sprawling Chinese metropolis around them. I guess that kind of thing still happening in many parts of the world…
Well, after all that, I left the museum pretty impressed (more thoughts on this soon). After that, I just headed home, as it started to sprinkle…I found myself in a place called Coco bar, which looks over a roundabout kind of area. Cool.
— in Changsha, China.