About 400 pieces of cultural relics have been unearthed so far during the excavation of the Cao Wei tomb in Xizhu village in Luoyang. Photos by Wang Kaihao/China Daily and Zhang Xiaoli/For China Daily
An ongoing excavation of what could be the tomb of an empress in ancient China shows how such finds could be treated in the future.
At the foot of Wan'an Hill, there is a large ancient tomb with heavy security and a huge protective shield temporarily built over it. The site is in Luoyang, a city in Henan province, which was the capital of 13 empires or kingdoms over two millennia of Chinese history.
It is thus commonplace for locals to see excavations for cultural relics going on at construction sites.
Nevertheless, for Shi Jiazhen, director of the Luoyang City Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, the excavation of a tomb in Xizhu village, on the southeastern outskirts of Luoyang, is one of the biggest finds in recent years.
The site was discovered by villagers who were moving their family graveyards in July 2015.
"No coffin was found and many frescoes and bricks have been destroyed by tomb robbers," says Shi.
"But that doesn't lessen the significance of the find: It's the tomb of a high-ranking person from Cao Wei, probably of an empress, according to our studies of its shape and its seven-layered structure."
Cao Wei (220-265) was one of three states in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), which was founded by Cao Pi on a foundation left by his father Cao Cao, a powerful warlord at the end of Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).
Based on studies of the site and combined with historical records, archaeologists believe that the tomb is of the empress of Cao Rui, the second emperor of Cao Wei.
Although the tomb has been vandalized many times, from the Song (960-1279) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) period, about 400 cultural relics have been unearthed so far, including jade, pottery and stone inventories of funeral objects.
One of the finds is an amber figurine of a woman riding a sheep. It would have been state-of-the-art at that time and is a national treasure, says Shi.
"The tomb is built in a simple style, which inherits characteristics of the Eastern Han Dynasty," says Shi. "However, its extraordinarily large scale gives it a royal aura."
For instance, the burial chamber is 12 meters deep, 18 meters long and 13.5 meters wide, and has a 36-meter-long tomb passage, according to Wang Xianqiu, the archaeologist in charge of the site.
"We've also surveyed about a 1 million square meters area around the tomb, and found an even bigger tomb 400 meters away," says Wang.
"It could be Cao Rui's tomb, but we have decided not to touch it."
A common practice among today's Chinese archaeologists is not to rush to excavate emperors' mausoleums, even though their locations are confirmed.
For four years in a row, projects undertaken by Shi's institute have been included in "Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries in China", an annual survey of top experts, which is organized by the China Cultural Relics News.