Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Jade Shroud Found Volume 49 Number 3, May/June 1996
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

A magnificent shroud of 4,000 wafer-thin jade plaques, sewn with gold thread and decorated with gold flowers and buttons, has been found with the body of Liu Wu, the third king of the state of Chu during the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 9). Chinese archaeologists discovered the king in a tomb chiselled 383 feet into the rock of Lion Mountain on the outskirts of Xuzhou in eastern Jiangsu Province, far to the north of where most Chu artifacts have been found in the past. Before entering the tomb, archaeologists had to clear away 16 seven-ton rocks placed in front of a 229-foot tunnel to deter grave robbers.

Liu Wu was buried 2,170 years ago in a fashion very similar to that of his Western Han overlords in Shaanxi Province to the north, according to University of Pittsburgh art historian Katheryn Linduff. Linduff says that, of the 13 or 14 such jade suits found so far, the best known were discovered in the tombs of Western Han royalty. "Liu Wu had himself buried not in Chu fashion, but in imperial [Western Han] style. He was obviously aligning himself with his imperial rulers to the north."

In addition to the jade suit, archaeologists found more than 175,000 coins, 200 official seals, 200 jade objects, weapons, and some 1,500 other objects made of gold, silver, copper, bone, and lacquer. The king's belt was one of the most unusual artifacts found in the tomb. It featured four large buttons of pure gold, the heaviest, weighing 13 ounces, is engraved with a picture of two bears tearing at a galloping horse. Linduff says the belt is an exotic object, perhaps made by the nomadic peoples on China's northern and western borders.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America