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Cliff Burials in China

Chinese archaeologists rescue remains of ancient cliff burials

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Archaeologists in China are undertaking a rescue operation of 600 cliff burials , the oldest of which date back around 2,000 years to the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD). Most of the ancient mountain tombs have already been plundered of their grave goods and coffins, probably many centuries ago.

The ancient cliff-face tombs are scattered across two mountains in Xinjing County in the southwest of China, creating the appearance of a giant wall of honeycomb with hundreds of tombs carved into the rock.  In total, there are around 370 ancient tombs carved into the mountain on the western side of a tall mountain, and 230 burials distributed over five levels on a smaller mountain.

It is believed that the tombs were built for the merchants who came to Xinjing by boat. The practice of cutting tombs high into the face of a mountain was believed to bring the deceased closer to god and the sun. And Xinjing isn’t the only place where this practice has been found. In China’s Sichuan region, many more ancient cliff burials have been found, constructed between the 1 st and 6 th centuries AD.  Also on the mountain cliffs in Gongxian in Sichuan province, hundreds of ancient wooden coffins belonging to the ancient Bo people hang precariously from the cliff face.  Some believe they were hung on cliffs to be within reach of the gods, while others theorise that it was to keep animals away from their dead.

Similarly, cliffside tombs have also been found in Nepal. Hidden within the Himalayas, 155ft from the ground, are an estimated 10,000 man-made caves dug into the Cliffside or tunnelled from above. They remain one of the World’s greatest archaeological mysteries as it is not known who built them and why.

Sadly, most of the burials in China’s Xinjing county were looted long ago, and very little remains inside the ancient mountain tombs, aside from a small number of stone coffins and various pieces of pottery, including figurines.  In 2011, archaeologists conducted a rescue excavation of the Xiaoba cliff burials in Leshan City. They found that 99% of the 1,199 burials had been robbed, and only fragments of the funeral objects remained.

It is hoped that what little remains, will be preserved for the future.

By April Holloway

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