Archaeologists have excavated a tomb from under a Nanjing construction site that dates back more than 500 years, to the heyday of China’s Ming Dynasty. Inside the tomb they found intricate gold treasures, as well as two stone epitaphs chronicling the rags-to-riches tale of the tomb’s inhabitant. Once a concubine, Lady Mei rose to become an influential adviser to her son a provincial duke¬—and a favorite of the Chinese emperor.
After workers discovered the brick tomb by chance at a construction site in Nanjing, China, archaeologists from Nanjing Museum and the Jiangning District Museum of Nanjing City excavated it back in 2008. Their findings, originally published in Chinese in the journal Wenwu, have recently been translated into English and published in a recent issue of the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.
As reported in Live Science,the archaeologists found that water had damaged the tomb, but the occupant’s skeletal remains remained inside. In addition, the tomb’s interior sparkled with gold baubles, including hairpins, bracelets and a small fragrance box. All are intricately engraved in designs of lotus petals, chrysanthemums and flames, and all are inlaid with precious gems, including rubies, sapphires and turquoise.
Two stone inscriptions, or epitaphs, found inside the tomb identify its occupant as one Lady Mei, and tell the story of her life in Ming Dynasty China more than five centuries ago. Born around 1430, she was probably a teenager when she married the decades-older Mu Bin, a duke of Qian who ruled Yunnan province in southwestern China. A former concubine, she would probably have been lower in status than Mu Bin’s two other wives.
Ten months after she gave birth to a son, Mu Zong, her husband died. According to her epitaphs, Lady Mei was then only 21 years old, “unwashed and unkempt, and called herself the survivor.” She dedicated herself to the care of her infant son, and began carefully grooming him to become a third-generation duke. Among other things, she “urged him to study hard mornings and evenings, and taught him loyalty and filial devotion, as well as services of duty.”
When it was time for Mu Zong to take the reins in Yunnan, Lady Mei traveled with him to meet the Chinese emperor, who was impressed by Lady Mei and later awarded her the title “Dowager Duchess.” Her son gave her much respect, and turned to her for advice on being a judicious leader and a faithful representative of the emperor. Specifically, as the epitaphs relate, she provided Mu Zong with “strategies for bringing peace to the barbarian tribes and pacifying faraway lands.”
Lady Mei was only in her mid-40s when she died of illness in 1474. She was brought to Nanjing for burial; the city served as the capital of China during the early Ming Dynasty. The emperor himself apparently ordered officials to prepare for Lady Mei’s funeral and burial. Meanwhile, the epitaphs describe widespread mourning for the Dowager Duchess back in her son’s province: “On the day of her death, the people of Yunnan, military servicemen or civilians, old and young, all mourned and grieved for her as if their own parents had passed away.”