Tmbs excavated in Kucha, with carvings of mythical creatures

1,700-year-old Silk Road cemetery contains carvings of the four mythological symbols of China

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Archaeologists in China have just reported on the discovery of a 1,700-year-old cemetery along the old Silk Road consisting of magnificent tombs that contain carvings of the four mythological symbols of China – the White Tiger of the West, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the Black Turtle of the North and the Azure Dragon of the East. 

Live Science reports that the discovery was first unearthed in 2007 by the Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, but has only just reached the English-speaking news following publication of a report in the journal  Chinese Cultural Relics

The cemetery is located in Kucha in what is now northwest China, an ancient Buddhist kingdom located on the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin and south of the Muzat River.  For a long time Kucha was the most populous oasis in the Tarim Basin. As a Central Asian metropolitan center, Kucha was part of the Silk Road economy, and was in contact with the rest of Central Asia and China, and eventually with the  cultures of India and Persia.

Map showing the position of Kucha (identified here as Kuqa) in the Tarim Basin in the 3rd century AD

Map showing the position of Kucha (identified here as Kuqa) in the Tarim Basin in the 3 rd century AD ( Wikipedia).

Ten well-preserved tombs were excavated, most of which were large domed structures made from bricks, containing an entrance, passage, main burial chamber and side chamber. Archaeologists believe they would have belonged to people of wealth, however, they have not been able to determine the original occupants of the tombs as they were looted in the past and since reused multiple times over the centuries, with one containing more than 10 occupants.

The tombs were reused multiple times, with one containing ten occupants

The tombs were reused multiple times, with one containing ten occupants. Credit: Chinese Cultural Relics.

One of the tombs was found to contain carvings of mythical creatures, including the four mythological symbols of China. In ancient Chinese astronomy, the sky ecliptic was divided into four sections. Each of these sections contained seven mansions, and together they formed the 28 Mansions. The 28 Mansions may be considered to be equivalent to the zodiacal constellations in Western astronomy, although they reflect the movement of the Moon through a sidereal month rather than the Sun in a tropical year. This enabled the ancient Chinese to mark the travelling positions of the Sun and the Moon, as well as to determine the time and seasons. Each section of the sky is assigned to a mythological creature, collectively known as the Four Symbols. These creatures are the Azure Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, the Black Tortoise of the North, and the Vermillion Bird of the South. Apart from their astronomical significance, each of the Four Symbols is surrounded by various mythological associations.

Carving instead one of the tomb depicts the Vermilion Bird of the South

Carving instead one of the tomb depicts the Vermilion Bird of the South (top left), the White Tiger of the West (bottom left), the Black Turtle of the North (top right) and the Azure Dragon of the East (bottom right). Credit: Chinese Cultural Relics.

Within the Four Symbols of ancient China, astronomy and mythology co-existed side by side and may be seen as a harmonious fusion of science and art. By studying these mythological creatures, one is able not only to learn about the astronomical understanding of the ancient Chinese, but also their belief system and the way they perceived and explained the world they lived in.

The four mythological symbols of China

The four mythological symbols of China.

Featured image: One of the tombs excavated in Kucha, in which archaeologists found carvings of mythical creatures. Credit: Chinese Cultural Relics.

By April Holloway

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