A new world of communication

Charles Higham is a Professor at Otago University in New Zealand, and an authority on Cambodia's Angkor civilisation and Ban Non Wat in Thailand.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of the staff of a firm called Context Conversations. Apparently, they organised travel to interesting destinations before the world ground to a halt with the COVID-19 plague. To survive, they have changed tack, and now bring such destinations to your living room via Zoom meetings. They enquired if I would be interested in giving a lecture on a subject of my choice. I replied that I would be happy to update a lecture I have given to many live audiences, on the civilisation of Angkor. The updating has involved climate change, as I have written on in previous issues. Essentially, we now have intriguing evidence that social inequality was bound in with an agricultural revolution involving the creation of irrigated and ploughed rice fields, which rapidly led to the formation of early states in South-East Asia as a period of aridity set in. The six centuries of the civilisation centred on Angkor enjoyed climatic stability as rainfall returned to normal levels; but in the 15th century, the monsoon went haywire, with storm deluges interspersed with further aridity that so affected the delicate and complex Angkorian water-distribution system that the court and much of the population decamped, leaving the great urban complex at the mercy of the elements as the forest regenerated. By the end of the 16th century, Portuguese missionaries encountered a massive, deserted stone city in the jungle.

It is a dramatic story that is germane to the modern ear because of the impact of climate change, and a story therefore with a strong moral basis. My first Zoom presentation was soon followed by a repeat, and then, a third. I have grown accustomed over the years to the requirement in my university to encourage student feedback on what I say and teach, but their comments are limited to a handful of colleagues. This is, however, the first time that feedback opinions are there on the internet for all to see. So far, I have not been embarrassed, and in the question time after I had finished, the issues raised by my listeners have been many and varied, and invariably insightful.

ABOVE Charles Higham sits overlooking the new tomb of Xin Zhui in the Changsha Museum during the filming of a
Charles Higham sits overlooking the new tomb of Xin Zhui in the Changsha Museum during the filming of a documentary into the small hours, after the museum had closed to the public.

Context Conversations has now lined up four more Zoom talks. One is entitled ‘The Imperial Tombs of China’, and the next, ‘The Western Han Dynasty’. Both are now being programmed and the PowerPoints are ready to screen. They will be followed by the Silk Roads, and the origins of Chinese civilisation. Some of these turn on a remarkable stroke of good fortune. In 1899, a Chinese scholar, Wang Jung, went down with a dose of flu and visited his local apothecary for some suitable Chinese traditional medicine. While being served, he noticed a box containing turtle carapaces: one of the ingredients. He picked one of these up and saw some faint scratch marks on the surface, and came to a startling conclusion – they looked like some form of written script. The owner of the shop was reticent to disclose his source of these but, finally, Wang traced them to a place called Anyang. I recall waking up on the sleeper train from Beijing to the Shang Dynasty capital of Zhengzhou in 1986, and looking out of the window to find that we had halted at a railway station labelled Anyang. And here, over the years, the last Shang capital has been slowly revealed.

Preparing for the next life

The massive royal tombs have long since been looted, but I will begin my Zoom presentation on Imperial tombs with a description of the grave of Fu Hao, a woman of very high rank, whose burial has survived miraculously intact. We know a great deal about her because the faint scratch marks on what we now call the Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones mention her. As well as being one of the wives of Emperor Wu Ding, she was a woman of great prestige who commanded troops in the field. In 1976, archaeologist Zheng Zhenxiang was working next to the royal necropolis when she noted a concentration of red lacquer. There emerged an intact rectangular pit covering 5.6m by 4m and filled with an incredible wealth of jades, bronzes, bone hairpins, and arrowheads, as befitted a warrior queen. Some of the bronzes bear inscriptions naming the dead woman, who was interred about 3,200 years ago. Remarkably, she was not only a commanding figure, but also a collector of antiquities, with many of the jades that accompanied her hundreds of years old, some originating in the Liangzhu state of the lower Yangtze Valley. Nor was she left alone in her grave: there were also the skeletons of half a dozen dogs and 16 attendants / slaves.

This burial is part of a long line of aristocratic graves that reflect the belief that it is essential to take your earthly belongings with you into the next world. After the fearsome Tiger Warrior infantry of the Zhou destroyed the last Shang army at the Battle of Muye in about 1045 BC, I will move forward to the burial of Marquis Yi of the state of Zeng in 433 BC. I really enjoy talking about this burial for what it tells us about the man himself. He loved music, as seen in his remarkable carillon of bells. His nested lacquered coffins even contained a window for the deceased to look out; his head rested on a golden bowl and spoon, and his jade comb.

Of course, one has to turn ultimately to the tomb of the first Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. One of the most breathtaking experiences in my archaeological life was to mount the steps and look out over the assembled ranks of the terracotta army. By this time in Chinese history, the emperors had replaced real humans with clay representations – one could hardly have slaughtered an entire army corps to accompany the dead leader. One point I will make about the pit containing the terracotta soldiers is that it is but a tiny fraction of the entire complex, which is, surely, the biggest known mortuary complex ever. There is the pyramid itself, so far unexplored in the modern era. However, Sima Qian, the grand historian of the Western Han Dynasty writing only 60 or so years after the entombment, described it containing a reconstruction of the empire, with rivers of mercury flowing forever and ever-burning lamps for illumination.

RIGHT Xin Zhui (shown in the centre) was portrayed on her silk tomb banner with her retainers. Although only in her 50s,
Xin Zhui (shown in the centre) was portrayed on her silk tomb banner with her retainers. Although only in her 50s, she needed a walking stick as her good life resulted in poor health.

Having spoken on the Imperial Tombs, I am now due to give a second talk in which I continue into the Western Han Dynasty. About 15 years ago, one member of my second-year class always arrived a few minutes late. He was Steve Talley, and after one of my lectures he introduced himself as the Director of Television Documentaries, and asked if I would be free for lunch the following week. He told me that the Natural History Film Unit had signed a contract to make a series of documentaries on China’s past, and did I have any recommendations on the first topic. I immediately suggested the tomb of Xin Zhui at Mawangdui. Not long after, I found myself flying into Changsha to take part in the filming.

Xin Zhui died on a summer’s day in 163 BC. She had just enjoyed a feast that ended with melons. Her body was tightly wrapped in about 20 layers of silk, then placed in nested lacquered coffins in the central chamber of a wooden tomb, with ancillary rooms filled with all she needed for eternal afterlife. The cypress wood tomb, buried deep in a hillside, was covered with a thick layer of charcoal, and then sticky white clay. When a passage was bored into the hill in 1963, archaeologists were astonished by the perfect preservation of everything within, due to the anaerobic atmosphere behind the clay and charcoal envelope. I will be describing her musical instruments, clothing, recipes, and the food laid out on lacquered platters, box of cosmetics and models of her retainers. But I also have the advantage of brief clips from our television documentary, one of which shows the autopsy on her body, which was perfectly preserved, hence identifying the melon seeds in her stomach and the gallstone in her bile duct that probably led to the fatal heart attack.

The silk tomb banner that rested on her coffin shows an image of her with the walking stick that lay in the tomb. Xin Zhui’s body now lies in an oxygen-free container in the Changsha Museum, a quite remarkable story of preservation.

I suppose that every cloud has a silver lining. The COVID-19 plague has, it seems, zoomed us all into digital communication. I get regular emails advising of upcoming virtual meetings. Only yesterday, I was able to tune in to Chris Stringer speaking from Bournemouth University on human origins. The list goes on and on.