With eyebrows, hair, and skin still intact after more than 600 years, a remarkably preserved Chinese "wet mummy" remains bundled in her quilt after centuries in a flooded coffin.
Removed from her wooden casket on March 1, the body had been found in a tomb accidentally uncovered by roadbuilders near the city of Taizhou (map).
"Wet mummies survive so well because of the anaerobic conditions of their burials," said archaeologist Victor Mair. That is, water unusually void of oxygen inhibits bacteria that would normally break down a body.
Unlike ancient Egyptian mummies, the corpse—likely from the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644)—was probably preserved only accidentally, said Mair, of the University of Pennsylvania.
"I don't know of any evidence that Chinese ever intentionally mummified their deceased," he said. "Whoever happened to encounter the right environment might become a preserved corpse."
Staff members from China's Taizhou Museum carefully raise the mummy—one of three found during a road expansion—from her wooden coffin on March 1.
The fully dressed, 5-foot-long (1.5-meter-long) body was buried with luxury items, including a jade ring, a silver hairpin, and more than 20 pieces of Ming-dynasty clothing.
The lack of identifying insignia such as a phoenix or dragon, though, suggests the wet mummy wasn't royal, said Timothy Brook, a historian at the University of British Columbia's Institute of Asian Research.
"Her headgear is sort of ordinary," Brook said. "There's nothing that sets her apart from anyone else. ... She was probably just a well-off person."
The newfound mummy rests on a plastic sheet after being removed from her flooded coffin on March 1.
In ancient China, it was believed that the newly dead would appear before supernatural judges.
"If you were found to be morally worthy," Brook explained, "you would be sent off for reincarnation—as a deity if you were fantastic, as a human being if you were good, as an animal if you were less good, and as a bug or a worm if you'd been really bad."
Submerged in the brownish liquid that likely preserved it, the Ming dynasty-era mummy lies in her wooden coffin prior to her removal on March 1.
The University of Pennsylvania's Mair thinks the liquid is oxygen-poor water that leaked into the coffin and not any type of special preservation fluid.
Photograph by Gu Xiangzhong, Xinhua/Corbis
Highway to Heaven
On March 1 a crowd of Chinese archaeologists, reporters, and onlookers stand at the roadwork site where the Ming dynasty-era body was found.
During the Ming dynasty, preservation after death was thought to "reflect your purity" in life, Brook explained.
Had this woman's family known her body would be preserved for more than 600 years, they would have been extremely proud, he added.
Photograph by Jia Hongwei, Imaginechina/AP
A so-called exorcism coin adorns the chest of the newfound Chinese "wet mummy."
"My guess would be that the coin was placed on the body as a kind of charm against malevolent influences," Brook said.
Still unknown is whether the woman was buried with any written documents or inscribed pottery—a common practice in Ming-dynasty China.
"If you were a person of any importance, you had someone write a [remembrance] or a brief biography," Brook said, "and that biography would often be posted at the burial site and a copy buried with you as well, to identify who you are" in the afterlife.