China's Lady Dai Superbly Preserved at 2,150

Lady Dai was a Chinese nobleman’s wife in her mid-50s when she died of a heart attack. She was overweight, had diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, liver disease, gallstones and her arteries were almost totally clogged.

She didn’t live the healthiest life but she left behind one of the most perfectly preserved bodies in history. She was buried about 2,100 years ago. Her tomb was found in the early 1970s on Mawangdui, a hill in Changsha, near the capital of Hunan Province in China. More than 1,400 equally well-preserved artifacts found around her were designed to help her in the afterlife.

“The Han Dynasty is the foundation of Chinese culture,” Susan Tai, Curator of Asian Art for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, said. “We are looking at a tomb in Southern China from a very important cultural region that contributed some of the greatest literature and mythology and art to China.”

The museum will host “Noble Tombs at Mawangdui” from Sept. 19 to Dec. 13. The exhibition of Lady Dai artifacts from the Hunan Provincial Museum stopped in New York earlier this year, then headed to Santa Barbara, about 90 miles west of Los Angeles.

There are 68 items in the collection. Ninety percent of those came from Lady Dai’s tomb because it was in such good condition.

Mawangdui was actually home to three tombs. Lady Dai’s husband, Li Cang, was the prime minister of Changsha. He died in 186 B.C., 20 some years before his wife died.

“His tomb was looted repeatedly in antiquity. There were no remains. All the treasures were gone. However, several coin-sized seals were found in the pit. They identified the tomb to be Li’s. They also helped identity his wife’s tomb,” Tai said.

The third grave, tucked slightly under Lady Dai’s, is believed to be that of one of the couple’s two sons, although some believe it was Li’s brother. The man apparently died in his 30s. There were skeletal remains and many artifacts in his tomb, including a library of 50 books written on silk and bamboo slips.

The volumes focused on the military and medicine, including sexual health. The items show women loved beauty and men attached importance to martial arts.

When Lady Dai’s tomb was first opened, there were gasps because there was no decay, Tai said. Oxygen took an immediate toll, but even today, her body is well preserved at the Hunan Provincial Museum.

Modern day scientists are still working on ways to preserve bodies as well as Lady Dai’s, but they’ve found several reasons why it remained in such good shape. Her family wrapped her in 22 dresses of silk and hemp, bound her with nine silk ribbons and covered her face with a mask. All the clothes filled the coffin and it was perfectly sealed, keeping air out. There were inner and outer tombs, like nesting boxes.

Nearly 20 gallons of an unknown liquid were found inside the coffin. A thick layer of white pastelike soil was put on the floor and the tomb was nearly 50 feet below the surface. She was surrounded by massive amounts of food, wine, lacquered dinnerware and drinking vessels, 46 bolts of silk, more clothes, books, makeup and other symbols of wealth.

Lady Dai’s tomb provides a glimpse of the opulent and elegant life she led. Lacquered vessels had replaced bronze as the favored material for the elite.

“Han Dynasty texts say that a lacquered cup required the effort of 100 men to make and cost 10 times more than one made of bronze,” Tai explained. Raw lacquer was toxic and could kill or deform those who worked with it if they were not careful.

Lady Dai’s hair was thinning so she used a hairpiece and two combs to form a bun behind her head. One comb had wide teeth for untangling, while one had smaller teeth for scrubbing her scalp. Some of the vessels and combs will be part of the exhibit.

A T-shaped piece of silk with a painting of Lady Dai draped over her coffin is the earliest portraiture in Chinese painting, Tai said.

The original painting is one of four items too fragile to leave China, so life-size reproductions will be shown in Santa Barbara.

One part of the intricate painting shows Lady Dai dead, wrapped in cloth and surrounded by her descendants, food and drink. The center of the painting shows her standing in profile and walking with a cane as if she is ascending into heaven.

Scholars are still debating what the painting at the top of the T means.

“Many believe it is her in afterlife,” Tai said. “Her soul has evolved and integrated into the cosmos.”