1,600-Year-Old Skeletons in Lovers Embrace Found in North China
Till death do us part: are the fates of lovers intertwined forever? A study published by Chinese (from the Datong Institute of Archaeology, Jilin University and Xiamen University) and American scientists in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology examines the evidence and the implications of a single “lovers’ tomb” found during the summer 2020 dig season in Datong, Shanxi Province, North China. Xinhua Net News reported that the complete skeletal remains of a couple embracing in a single grave have been found and that the woman was wearing a ring on her ring finger. Lovers’ tombs or couple double burials are quite rare, and this was the first one ever found in North China.
Lovers’ Tomb Couple Lived in the Northern Wei Dynasty Period
This poetic scene of an ancient Chinese couple’s heart wrenching and tragic end was discovered in 2020 during an excavation of over 600 tombs at a cemetery in North China, as part of preservation work before a construction project. Dated to around 1,600 years old, scientists estimate that the couple lived during the heyday of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534 AD), which ruled over modern-day northern and central China.
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The couple lay in a single coffin, buried in the same grave, reports CGTN. The female skeleton appeared to be nuzzling the shoulder of the male skeleton, suggesting a deep and intimate bond. Both had their arms wrapped around each other’s waists – clearly a deliberate design to keep the two united in their afterlife. There was also a silver ring found on the ring finger of the left hand of the woman.
“The message was clear – husband and wife lay together, embracing each other for eternal love during the afterlife,” wrote the authors of the study.
Lovers’ tombs, i.e., double burials, are viewed a rare and exceptional. One of the most famous couples embraced in death are the Lovers of Valdaro in Italy. The male skeleton is on the left, and the female skeleton is on the right. (Dagmar Hollmann / CC BY-SA 4.0)
From the courtyards of Romania to the Neolithic proto-city of Çatalhöyük, Turkey, archaeologists from across the globe have unearthed ancient couples buried together in eternal embrace. Overall, double burials like the one in Datong, China (and elsewhere) are rare.
There are famous examples of lovers and loved ones buried together all over the planet. For example, the famous lovers of Modena, Italy. Then there’s the ancient settlement in the Siberian village of Staryi Tartas where 600 tombs of couples embraced in post-mortal hugs with bone hands clasped together were discovered in 2013.
The authors of the current study of the Datong lovers’ tomb concur, writing “Evidence of the direct materialisation of love in burials (such as the Taj Mahal) has been rare, and even rarer in skeletal form.”
However, this is the first time a double burial lovers’ tomb of this kind has been found in North China. Dr. Qun Zhang, an associate professor at the Institute of Anthropology at Xiamen University, who co-authored the paper, said “This discovery is a unique display of the human emotion of love in a burial, offering a rare glimpse of concepts of love, life, death, and the afterlife in northern China during a time of intense cultural and ethnic exchange.”
Northern Wei dynasty wall murals and painted figurines in the Yungang Grottoes, 5th to 6th centuries AD, depicting Buddhist scenes. (Felix Andrews / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Buddhism and Cultural Diffusion in the Northern Wei Dynasty
Dr. Zhang went on to say that the spread of Buddhism and related cultural diffusion were very strong during the Northern Wei dynasty period. And that these changes likely influenced the ancient inhabitants of the Datong area and how they viewed death and the afterlife.
In fact, during the Northern Wei dynasty, which was politically turbulent and witnessed intense socio-cultural change, North China was unified and foreign ideas like Buddhism became prevalent.
Pathological and trauma signs on the lovers’ skeletons: (a) An unhealed ulnar fracture and missing part of the fourth digit on the right hand of the male individual. Slight development of the marginal osteophytes on the lumbar vertebrae could be detected in the female skeleton; (b) Osteophytosis on the distal end of the lower limbs of the male individual; (c) Antemortem tooth loss in the female individual. (International Journal of Osteoarchaeology)
Skeletal analysis revealed an unhealed infectious fracture on the right arm of the male skeleton, while the bones of the female seemed to be healthy. This suggests a potential couple suicide.
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The other hypothesis put forward is that perhaps the man died first (either by suicide or in battle) and the woman then committed suicide to be with him in the afterlife.
However, the researchers were not ready to rule out other possibilities. For example, they could have died at the same time due to an illness.
“Such tombs help better interpret the social perceptions of human life and death and attitudes towards love in that dynasty, when the coexistence of multiple ethnic groups fueled the rise and spread of pluralistic ethos,” said the researchers.
Top image: The North China Datong lover’s tomb couple wrapped around each other in an afterlife embrace, which was dated to about 1,600 years ago. The shiny ring on the on the woman’s ring finger has especially intrigued researchers. Source: Xinhua Net News
By Sahir Pandey
CGTN. 2021. Over 1600-year-old tomb of embracing lovers unearthed in Datong, N China. Available at: https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-08-16/Over-1600-year-old-tomb-of-embracing-lovers-unearthed-in-Datong-12LLCTHDswU/index.html.
McSpadden, K. 2021. Chinese archaeologists discover ‘embracing lovers’, but it is the ring that intrigues. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/people-culture/social-welfare/article/3145809/chinese-archaeologists-discover-embracing-lovers.