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Small screen ponders mummy mystery
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-09-13 08:34

You may think of Egypt when pondering the marvel of mummies. But you should think again.

According to some scientists, the most pristine remains of ancient citizens are found in China.

The reconstructed statue (L) of a youthful Lady Dai from the ancient Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) and the reconstructed image of Lady Dai, aged about 50. [newsphoto/file photo]
The body of "Lady Dai," a noble woman from the Western Han Dynasty which ruled 2,100 years ago, is housed in the state-of-the -art Hunan Museum in Changsha, Central China's Hunan Province.

Flocks of visitors arrive every day to view the wonder. Just how did the ancient morticians embalm her - what materials did they use?

The body is so well preserved, it can be autopsied by pathologists and shows similar results from a cadaver of a recently deceased human being.

Intrigued? Well, you do not have to make the long trip to Changsha and see for yourself. A new documentary called "Diva Mummy," is currently being screened by the National Geographic Channel, and features two other almost equally well preserved ancient Chinese bodies of the Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 220). The programme kicks off the channel's "Most Amazing Discoveries" series.

China has long been a source of fascination for scientists from around the world because of its rich culture and its numerous mysteries and treasures buried deep under the earth and the sea. "Diva Mummy" invites viewers to ponder one of forensic archaeology's greatest mysteries... Just how did several bodies buried in Central China over 2,000 years ago become the best preserved ancient human remains ever found?

Questions unearthed

In 1971, at the height of the Cold War, workers digging an air raid shelter near the city of Changsha uncovered an enormous Han Dynasty-tomb.

The body of Lady Dai [special to chinadaily.com.cn]
Inside, they found over 1,000 perfectly preserved artifacts - and what some claim to be the most perfectly preserved corpse ever found.

The tomb belonged to Xin Zhui, the wife of the ruler of the Han imperial fiefdom of Dai. Xin, the Lady Dai, died between 178 and 145 BC, at around 50 years of age. The objects inside her tomb point to a woman of wealth and importance, and one who enjoyed the good things in life.

But it was not the exquisite lacquer dinnerware, the exotic foods or the fine fabrics that have followed her to immortality - but the extraordinarily well-preserved state of her remains.

The Lady Dai, a mummy of all mummies, and the legend and mystery of how ancient Chinese morticians preserved her remains for what may be eternity, has long baffled and amazed scientists.

The bady of Lady Dai is stored in the Hunan Museum in Changsha. [special for chinadaily.com.cn]
Her skin is supple and her limbs can be manipulated. Her hair and internal organs are intact and her veins still contain red type A blood.

The film is a co-production between Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ) and View Point Communications, a production company that is affiliated with China International Communications Centre (CICC), National Geographic Channel and Arte.

But viewers will learn, the mystery of Lady Dai remains unsolved.Archaeologists and pathologists are still pondering the possible reasons behind her state of preservation. Was it the elaborate tomb construction that protected the body? Or, more controversially, could it have been a mysterious liquid that the body was immersed in? Is this strange substance an elixir of immortality?

To intensify the mystery, two other tombs containing bodies in a similar state of preservation have been found within a few hundreds of kilometres of Xin Zhui. One was a magistrate by the name of Sui, the other was Ling Huiping, the wife of a powerful Han Dynasty lord.

The three corpses have provided archaeologists with much information- not only about their deaths - but about their lives, too.

Xin Zhui's medical profile may be the most complete ever compiled on an ancient human being. It is revealed that she suffered from a series of parasites, had lower back pain and was overweight at the time of death.

Her body also reveals clogged arteries and a massively damaged heart, a clear indication that heart disease brought on by obesity, lack of exercise and a rich diet was as much an ancient medical problem as a modern health risk.

According to the documentary, the discovery of Lady Dai is something intriguing. Using news footage, it tells the dramatic story of how workers accidentally found her body and other discoveries.

With highly elaborate re-enactments, it dramatizes Lady Dai's splendid world, her equally splendid afterlife and the mysterious process that made her so well preserved. It also shows the first video images of the autopsy of another amazingly well preserved Han Dynasty body found in Lianyungang of East China's Jiangsu Province in 2002.

The film also features state-of-the-art computer graphics developed by the same people who worked on the Lord of the Rings epic. The intriguing archaeology story is interwoven with some interesting snapshots of modern day China as the economic juggernaut roles to its global stand in the 21st century.

As the bulldozers dig up more of China's past, scientists are sure more mysteries will become the subject of future programmes.

NHNZ Managing Director Michael Stedman says the production builds on the already strong relationship the company has with Chinese companies.

"Through 'Diva Mummy' we have forged excellent relationships with both Chinese scientists and TV producers. I know we will be working with many of the same people on future projects which promise to reveal more about the rich culture and complex history of China.

"We have brought five films about China to the world market in the past two years," Stedman says.

Among them "Panda Nursery" has been screened in all the major markets in the world, as will "Diva Mummy" before the end of this year.

Its co-production with Xinjiang TV "Wild Horse's Return to China" will be shown on Animal Planet soon.

"We believe that documentary is a strong vehicle for promoting the understanding of real China in the rest of the world and we plan to bring more wonderful stories of China into the living rooms of the world TV audience," Stedman says.

NHNZ, a Fox Television Studio company, is the world's second largest producer of factual programming, producing over 70 hours of documentary films for the market every year. It is a company wholly owned by News Corporation.

In May 2002, NHNZ set up a production arm in China to co-produce with local partners for the international market. This innovative move was welcomed by local film makers and authorities alike, who hailed it as an opportunity to learn from industry leaders and access the international TV market.

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