The mystery of the ancient hanging coffins suspended on a Chinese cliff face
On the mountain cliffs in Gongxian in Sichuan province, China, lies a peculiar sight –hundreds of ancient wooden coffins hanging precariously from the cliff face. Some believe they were hung on cliffs to be within reach of the gods, while others theorize that it was to keep animals away from their dead. The ancient hanging coffins have been undergoing restoration to stabilise and protect these remarkable artifacts from further damage.
The hanging coffins of Sichuan were left behind by the Bo people, who are thought to have died out about 400 years ago, taking with them the secrets of their burial tradition. The Bo were an ethnic minority people living astride the borders of modern day Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. There they created a brilliant culture as early as 3,000 years ago. The Bo differed from other ethnic groups in their burial customs. Typically hewn from durable hardwood logs, their hanging coffins went unpainted.
Some of the tombs are as old as 3,000 years and the most recent one dates back to about 1500 AD. Each coffin is made from a hollowed out single tree trunk and was originally protected by a bronze cover.
According to Cui Chen, curator of the Yibin Museum, hanging coffins come in three types. Some are cantilevered out on wooden stakes. Some are placed in caves while others sit on projections in the rock. All the three forms can be found in Gongxian where most of China's hanging coffins are located.
A coffin hangs precariously on a cliff face at the Shen Nong Stream, Hubei, China (Wikimedia Commons)
But these bizarre hanging coffins have baffled experts for centuries in southern China, and indeed around the world. Some believe the coffins must have been lowered down with ropes from the top of the mountain. Some think the coffins had been put in place using wooden stakes inserted into the cliff face to be used as artificial climbing aids. Others believe that scaling ladders or timber scaffolds were used. However, investigators have failed to find even a single stake hole.
As for the reason why, Li Jing’s writing during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) may offer a clue in his Brief Chronicles of Yunnan. "Coffins set high are considered auspicious. The higher they are the more propitious for the dead. And those whose coffins fell to the ground sooner were considered to be more fortunate."
The project to stabilize and conserve the hanging coffins has held its challenges, however, it was a worthwhile endeavour as not only were the team able to restore more than 40 coffins, they also uncovered a further 16 which are over 3,000 years old and hold great historical significance.
“It is very difficult work to restore them, but it is necessary. Over the past ten years at least 20 of the coffins have fallen and this is something we want to prevent,” said local expert Lin Chan.
The practice of hanging coffins ended with the mysterious disappearance of the Bo people. Those who came after knew them from the unique traditions and burial artefacts they left behind like faint echoes on the cliffs, their ancient culture like that of the Maya is no more.