In Brief

Newly Discovered Chinese Tomb Murals Give a Glimpse of Domestic Life 1,000 Years Ago

These colorful paintings give us a sense of the mortuary customs that were part of life in China over a millennium ago.

Mural on the west wall of the tomb, showing figures and clothes lines (all images courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics)

Archaeologists in the northern Shanxi province of China have uncovered a vibrant record of the customs and costumes of the people living in the area about 1,000 years ago. An ancient tomb filled with colorful, partially preserved murals resurfaced in Datong City as part of Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology’s excavation of 31 tombs of the Liao and Jin dynasties; although the findings occurred in July 2007, the researchers published their study in Chinese in 2015, with an English version appearing only in this year’s issue of Chinese Cultural Relics.

Burial chamber of the tomb

Made from brick and circular in shape, the burial chamber features four murals with scenes separated by painted red columns, as well as a number of pottery and porcelain artifacts. The researchers believe it was made to accommodate the joint burial of a husband and a wife during the late Liao Dynasty (907-1125 CE), and at the center of the tomb stood an urn with cremated remains. Images of the couples themselves are remiss in the surrounding paintings, which instead depict carefully rendered scenes of domestic life, from numerous clothes lines to tables laden with household wares and jewelry. Featuring in the scenes are a handful of male and female servants, each depicted with individual features and expressions that bestow upon each a separate identity.

In their report, the researchers take care to point out various details such as a “garlic-clove-shaped nose,” “thin and long eyebrows,” a “high-nose bridge,” and “deep socketed eyes.” Each servant is also wearing different types of garments such as wide-sleeved gowns, long skirts, and inner jackets. They also showcase different hairstyles, from double-bunned ‘dos to pinned buns to hair tucked under a melon-shaped cap.

Mural on the north wall of tomb depicting cranes

“In particular, the headdresses on the mural figures are in a theatrical style, the first time this has been seen in the Liao dynasty tombs in Datong City,” the researchers write. “[The tomb] provides new material evidence for the study of mortuary customs and headdress styles in northern China and among the ethnic minorities in the Datong area.”

The objects surrounding the figures also make clear that the artists involved took special care to replicate reality. The dishes and jewelry on the table take on all forms, including a white narrow-necked and lidded ewer, red saucers, and tiny hairpins and combs. The interest in portraying variation appears as well in an adjacent, wide mural of four cranes, each elegant and posing in different stances.

The practice of adorning tomb with murals was not uncommon in China, although art historian William Watson notes in The Arts of China 900–1620 that they were “virtually absent” from the northern metropolitan territory under the Northern Song rule but appear in the following Liao and Jin Dynasties — showing “that this art, in a characteristic artisan style, belongs peculiarly to a society living under Qitan and Ruzhen rulers,” he writes. Just earlier this year, archaeologists uncovered more examples in a North China tomb that dates to the Jin Dynasty. The scenes in that chamber also centered on domestic life, depicting people working and cooking. Even more intricate was a 2011 discovery shared in 2014, also by the Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology, of another series of murals in Datong City. The large paintings in that tomb are incredibly lively and rife with imagery: one shows a bedroom scene complete with attendants and a playful cat and dog; another show attendants carrying food and wine. While the ceiling mural of the other round chamber in Datong City had faded, this one was luckily still in tact, boasting red constellations of stars that draw a celestial connection to these earthly memorials.

Aerial view of the tomb
Plan view and profile of the circular tomb
Mural of two servants on the south wall of the tomb
Detail of the mural on the west wall of the tomb
Detail of the mural on the west wall of the tomb
Mural on the east wall of the tomb
Detail of the mural on the north wall of the tomb
Detail of the mural on the north wall of the tomb
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