3000-Year-Old Boat Coffin Contents Suggest Owner of Prominence

December 17, 2006 12:00 am Last Updated: December 17, 2006 12:00 am

The boat coffin [1] recently unearthed in the Yanjinggou Developing Zone of Chengdu City dates back to the Warring States Era (475 B.C. – 221 B.C.). On December 6, archeologists removed the top of the coffin. The boat coffin is 6.84 meters (nearly 23 feet) in length, its internal chamber 4.19 meters in length.

Of the eight unearthed boat coffins so far, it is the largest and has yielded the most funeral objects. No expected valuable jewelry or precious stones were buried in the 3000-year-old coffin chamber, nor was there a skeleton wrapped in silk robes. However, buried underground for thousands of years were pottery, copperware, lacquer and bamboo ware, woodenware and seeds of crops. From the excavated objects archeologists inferred that the owner of the boat coffin must have been one of the prominent nobility.

The Tianfu Morning Paper reported that archeologists had opened a boat coffin of the Warring States Period on December 6, which had been excavated in Yanjinggou Developing Zone, Chengdu City. It has never been easy to uncover a coffin carved out of a single tree trunk and weighing several tons. The search team, composed of archeologists, had borrowed a gigantic crane. Once the coffin was opened, the spacious coffin chamber was found to be packed with black mud and water, without a single trace of the skeleton and expected funeral objects. But when archeologists used their hands to dig out the surrounding mud, a pottery pot popped out. When they dug deeper, all sorts of pottery pots were disclosed.

Owner of Cache of Pottery, Copperware and Lacquer Ware Possessed Considerable Fortune

Not far away from the pottery was a distinguished black pottery object—a pottery jar whose design was very unique with three ear-like accessories. According to the archeologists, it is the first time such pottery jar excavated from boat coffins and was likely used as a food or wine container during the Warring States Period. Additionally, a pottery jar is also viewed as representative of Chu culture [2]. As a result, it can be inferred that there were frequent trading and cultural exchanges among states.

Archeologists dug out of the coffin chamber a large amount of pottery and lacquer ware. Of all the unearthed objects, copperware was the greatest in number and diversity. For example, there were over ten bronze weapons recovered, such as a knife, a sword, a spear, a dagger-axe, etc.

Based on the report, Jiang Cheng, deputy head of the Institute of Archeology of Chengdu City, said that because of the slightly sour mud, the skeleton had completely decayed so that the coffin owner was beyond recognition. Since during that time Chengdu did not produce copper, and copperware had to be transported from Yunnan, Hubei, and Liangshan. Additionally, a large amount of lacquer ware was also found in the chamber. At that time lacquer and bronze ware were both regarded as luxury items. This indicates that the coffin dweller must have been of prominent social status.

Owner's Identity Remains Unknown

Besides copperware and lacquer ware, there were also numerous wooden sticks and wooden bars in the coffin chamber, some of which looked quite like paddles. What use were these wooden objects? Archeologists said that the answer awaited further research.

Archeologists also found crop seeds and peach-pits. Such seeds were said to represent hopes, symbolizing that the dead would be able to live an abundant future life in another world. These seeds were believed to be precious funeral objects dedicated to the dead during that time. Similarly, fruits were also items dedicated to the dead, with fruit flesh decomposed and pits left behind.

It was reported that archeologists would continue excavating boat coffins and send the unearthed objects to the research team for further details about the identity of the coffin inhabitant.

[1] Boat coffins were very special. Most were carved out of single tree trunk one and a half meters in diameter, five meters in length and with the center hollowed out. Their bottoms and ends were shaped like a boat, too. [2] Chu was a kingdom in what is now southern China during the Warring States Period.