Embraced for 1,500 years in China



The male skeleton lies with one arm extended on the left side of the grave, holding the abdomen of the female skeleton at its side. The woman’s head rests on her shoulder and her left hand rests on her waist. A simple silver ring is visible on his ring finger.

The postures of the skeletons discovered in a double tomb excavated in a Chinese necropolis last summer suggest that the man and woman were buried together and placed in this way as a token of the love they shared. The couple’s remains, dating from the Northern Wei period (AD 386 to 534), are believed to be the first such discovery in China.

Qian Wang
A paleoanthropologist and professor at Texas A&M University School of Dentistry, the joint burial itself is not unique. The cemetery of more than 600 graves, excavated in June 2020 by the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archeology in Datong City, contains at least two other joint burials. But the two nearly complete skeletons thus embraced are a “remarkable discovery,” in Wang’s view, for the rare opportunity it offers to peek into cultural attitudes in China during this time period.

“It reflects the thoughts of humanity towards death and the courageous search for love and faith in the afterlife,” said the paleoanthropologist in
a statement from Texas A&M University

The discovery of the skeletons and Wang’s assessment of their importance are detailed in the
International Journal of Osteoarchaeology

The man, believed to be in his 30s, suffered an unhealed fracture in the ulna of his right arm. Part of the fourth finger of his right hand is also missing, suggesting that he may have lived ‘a very energetic life, maybe a warrioror something like that, ”according to Wang. The woman is about 35 years old and appears to have had a problem with one of her wisdom teeth.

“They seem commoners,” Wang said, but beyond that, little else has been deduced about their lives.

The presence of the simple silver ring on the woman’s ring finger leads Wang to believe that individuals they were probably husband and wife. Based on the information their skeletons offer, several hypotheses about how they died are possible.

«The woman was in better health than the man. Maybe the man died of an infection from something and the woman decided to commit suicide to be buried with him, ”said Wang.

Other possibilities cannot be ruled out, but the authors of the article agree that it is most likely that the woman will sacrifice herself to be buried next to her husband.

During the Northern Wei dynasty, some 500 years after Confucianism, romance between men and women was praised. Wang says that attitudes towards “free love” were somewhat liberal, and many famous love stories had tragic endings similar to “Romeo and Juliet.” It describes the popular story of the “butterfly lovers”, in which a woman jumps into the grave of her deceased lover and her spirits emerge from her grave like butterflies, never to be separated again.

«This kind of free expression of the search for love was praised, and he praised himself and accepted suicide for love», Said Wang.

It would make sense for the couple’s families to position their bodies in such a way as to show their bond in life, with the woman’s wedding ring visible as a symbol of their love. Wang notes that while the ring finger of the male skeleton is missing from the visible right hand, it is possible that the hand placed under the female skeleton could also wear a wedding ring. Both skeletons remained buried for future museum display and have not been fully exhibited.

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