Cluster of Yuan Dynasty Tombs with Stunning Brick Murals Found in China

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Cluster of Yuan Dynasty Tombs with Stunning Brick Murals Found in China

Archaeologists working in Jinan, Eastern China, have concluded excavations of a series of tombs in advance of development in the area. Among the most

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Archaeologists working in Jinan, Eastern China, have concluded excavations of a series of tombs in advance of development in the area. Among the most exciting aspects of the dig was the discovery of several Yuan Dynasty tombs, some of which featured well-preserved and colorful murals and carved brick artistry. 

All in all, 35 tombs were excavated in Jinan in advance of the Jinan Eastern Suburbs Project. Of these 12 were Yuan Dynasty tombs. (Jinan Archaeological Research Institute)

Excavating in Jinan: Uncovering the Yuan Dynasty Tombs

In April 2021, the Jinan Archaeological Research Institute began excavations at a site in the city of Jinan, in the Shandong province located in Eastern China. Jinan required this archaeological work in advance of the construction of the Jinan Eastern Suburbs Project.

The excavations were fruitful, uncovering a series  tombs from different periods of China’s history, including the Han Dynasty, the Yuan Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty. While many of the tombs had already been looted, the team still found more than 60 sets of  Chinese artifacts . The range of epochs encountered indicates that this was once a large cemetery which existed over many years, helping archaeologists understand more about burial customs and ancient cultural practices in the Jinan area. 

12 of the 35 tombs discovered in Jinan were Yuan Dynasty tombs. (Jinan Archaeological Research Institute)

Rare Written Evidence Found in Yuan Dynasty Tombs

Amongst the 35 tombs excavated in Jinan, 12 dated back to the Yuan Dynasty which was established in 1271 and lasted until 1368. One of these was a stone-chambered tomb, while 11 have been categorized as brick-carved mural tombs. Significant in this excavation, as well as rare, seven of the tombs included clear information and dates about the persons interred within. 

Discoveries like this are few and far between due to looting which has taken place over the centuries. The written evidence allowed experts to confirm that the cemetery plot belonged to the Guo family of the late Yuan Dynasty era. The tombs were laid out in a planned and orderly fashion, meaning that they were probably blood relations. All in all, this provides new material when it comes to studying the way family cemeteries were arranged during this particular period in Jinan’s history. 

14th century portrait of Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty. ( Public domain )

Learning About the Great Yuan Dynasty

The Yuan Dynasty, which is often referred to as the Great Yuan, was established in the late 13th century by  Kublai Khan  of the Mongol Borjihin clan. The grandson of the famed  Genghis Khan Kublai Khan  was also known as Emperor Shizu of Yuan and founded the Yuan Dynasty in 1271 to rule over what is now China, Mongolia and Korea. He became the first Yuan emperor and he ruled until his death in 1294. 

Lasting for less than 100 years, the Yuan Dynasty was China’s first foreign-led dynasty, and was established after the Mongol campaign to conquer the area. The creation of the dynastic name was a way to legitimize  Mongol rule  and integrate the Mongols into the traditional Chinese narrative. The Yuan have been remembered for their contributions to astrology, math, weapons technology, innovations in ceramic art and for their use of paper currency. 

It is believed that the demise of the Yuan Dynasty was due to their over-spending on large construction projects and conquests, with their rulers losing touch with their Mongol roots and the lower classes. After a series of natural disasters, rebels claimed that these were an omen from heaven, leading to a series of rebellions. They finally lost power after years of struggle known as the Red Turban Rebellions, between 1351 and 1368, which ended with the rise of the Ming Dynasty. 

The brick fresco murals were the most important discoveries made at the Jinan dig. (Jinan Archaeological Research Institute)

Uncovering “Largest Cluster of Yuan Dynasty Brick Mural Tombs”

According to  MINEWS, the shape and style of the different Yuan Dynasty tombs discovered in the Jinan suburb varies. Some are made of brick and others of stone, and there are both single and double chambers, and square and round  tombs. Amongst the remains they have found evidence of joint burials and relocations. There are also differences when it comes to the burial customs evidenced in the tombs, with the archaeologists having found both burials and cremations at the site. 

Of the 12 Yuan Dynasty tombs, the 11 brick fresco  tombs featured eye-catching carved brick murals. Xing Qi, the site leader, explained in  China News  that these brick fresco tombs “were the most important discoveries in this excavation.” Buried underground for hundreds of years, these colorful murals are a wonderful testament to the quality of craftsmanship from a bygone era. 

The patterns contained within these carved brick murals were created with wooden hammers and chisels. This is “the largest cluster of Yuan Dynasty brick mural  tombs” unearthed to date in Shandong, explained Li Ming, the Director of the Jinan Archaeological Research Institute, in  Archaeology News Network . Tomb M9 in particular is the best preserved of all. The steps on the south side are still there, and on both sides of the tomb door archaeologists found “beautifully painted peony patterns, carts and horses faintly visible.”

The brick Yuan Dynasty tombs unearthed in Jinan are stunning examples of craftsmanship. (Jinan Archaeological Research Institute)

What Else Did They Find?

Besides the Yuan Dynasty examples, 12 tombs date back to the Qing Dynasty era, while the team has as yet not been able to date the remaining 11 tombs. Apart from the tombs themselves, the team found copper coins,  bronze mirrors , pottery and porcelain, as well as other artifacts. They hope that the analysis of these will help to understand the evolution of porcelain in Shandong during the Yuan Dynasty era. 

The accumulation of evidence has led the archaeologists to conclude that none of the tombs belonged to people with official positions. They would therefore have been members of the Han landlord or businessman. This would also explain why “there is no official record in the epitaph,” explains  China News . As such the excavations can provide plenty of material evidence to understand the customs and social life of this particular class in the late Yuan Dynasty. 

In a 2012 special report,  World Archaeology  decried that in the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) had recorded that as many as 44,000 of 766,722 ancient ruins and other important historic sites had been “wiped out.” The culprits, according to the report, were tomb-robbers and thieves, as well as industrial projects and new developments. 

The excavations in Jinan were conducted over three months in advance of a  new development  project, which is a pretty short time-frame when dealing with archaeological remains. Such a swift turnover for archaeological work in Jinan begs the question as to how much of China’s cultural history is being destroyed in the name of future progress.

Top image: Brick fresco in one of the Yuan Dynasty tombs discovered in Jinan, China. Source: Jinan Archaeological Research Institute

By Cecilia Bogaard

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