Dunhuang tombs unveil the eras of Wei, Jin, and Sixteen Kingdoms


A set of ceramic vessels unearthed at the Foyemiaowan-Xindiantai Cemetery in Dunhuang Photo: Courtesy of MA HONGLIAN

During the Wei (220–266), Jin (265–420) and Sixteen Kingdoms (304–439) periods, the cultural traditions of the Han and Wei (also known as Cao Wei), originating from the Central Plains, continued to flourish in the Dunhuang area. Their prosperity not only benefited from the diligent governance of Dunhuang by the Han court, but also to the influx of refugees from the embattled Central Plains. The efficient administration of the Former Liang [one of the Sixteen Kingdoms which ruled present-day Gansu and parts of Ningxia, Shaanxi, Qinghai and Xinjiang from 320 to 376] by the Zhang family, which boosted local societal stability and economic prosperity, also played a pivotal role. Since the 1940s, a succession of tombs dating back to the Wei, Jin, and Sixteen Kingdoms periods have been unearthed, revealing previously undiscovered artifacts and materials from ancient Dunhuang.

From the 1940s to the present, over 10 archaeological excavations have been conducted at the Foyemiaowan-Xindiantai Cemetery in Dunhuang, resulting in the discovery of more than 1,400 tombs, the majority of which date back to the Wei, Jin and Sixteen Kingdoms periods. The majority of these tombs are characterized by underground chamber structures with long, sloping passages. The cultural connotations embodied in the tomb layout, burial items, and arrangements are consistent with the traditional culture of the Central Plains. The Qijiawan tomb complex, which yielded over 200 tombs during excavations in 1985 and 2013, exhibits patterns and cultural attributes akin to those of the Foyemiaowan-Xindiantai Cemetery, albeit of a lower grade.

Major findings

In 2015, in order to accommodate the Dunhuang Airport expansion project, the Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology excavated 180 tombs in the Foyemiaowan-Xindiantai Cemetery. The burial objects uncovered provide insights into the local religious beliefs of Dunhuang. The presence of burial dou vessels signifies a unique funerary practice from the Wei, Jin, and Sixteen Kingdoms period in the Dunhuang region, with many of these vessels bearing tomb-protecting mantras inscribed in red or black ink. During this excavation, a total of 67 inscribed dou vessels were unearthed from the cemetery. Among them, the earliest vessel was dated back to the year of 246, while the latest was from the year of 402. The tomb-preserving inscriptions on the vessels were found to be important Taoist texts, reflecting to some extent the influence of Taoist culture on funeral customs during that period. They are also a manifestation of the secularization of Taoism, holding great value for the study of the early development of Taoism in Dunhuang. Studies reveal that the annotative terminology of the tomb-protecting inscriptions from the era of Cao Wei to the early Western Jin Dynasty still bore the distinctive style of the Eastern Han tomb inscriptions from the Central Plains, despite the Eastern Han having already been abolished at that time. This phenomenon reflects the westward spread of Taoism into Dunhuang during the late Han. It was not until the late Western Jin Dynasty that tomb-preserving inscriptions with the local features of Dunhuang gradually took shape.

The average life expectancy of the local population reflects the social conditions of Dunhuang. Research indicates that the average life expectancy of the individuals buried in the Foyemiaowan-Xindiantai Cemetery was 40.97 years, with males living to an average age of 40.48 years, and females to 45 years.

A comparison was made with the individuals interred in the Han tombs of the Heishui Kingdom in Zhangye, Gansu Province, situated in the heart of the Hexi Corridor. The study revealed that the average life expectancy of those from the Heishui Kingdom was 30.3 years, with men averaging 33.8 years and women averaging 29.1 years. The average life expectancy of men and women from the Heishui Kingdom was found to be substantially shorter than that from the Foyemiaowan-Xindiantai Cemetery. This disparity may be attributed to the fact that the Heishui Kingdom served as a crucial garrison in the Hexi region during the Han Dynasty. Garrison soldiers typically served in their 20s to 30s, and due to the harsh natural conditions and frequent wars, a large number suffered accidental death during service and were buried on site. This accounts for the younger average age of tomb occupants. By contrast, Dunhuang was far removed from the conflicts in the Central Plains during the Wei, Jin and Sixteen Kingdoms periods. It had been greatly developed by the Han court and efficiently governed by the Zhang family who later ruled there, and thus enjoyed a stable social environment and suffered lower population loss.

The earliest brass objects in the Hexi Corridor were unearthed from the Foyemiaowan-Xindiantai Cemetery. Examination of the bronzes unearthed from the cemetery indicates that they were primarily made from the alloys of copper, tin, and lead. Among them, three of the bronzes were predominantly brass, consisting of copper and zinc. These three brass objects represent the earliest brass products discovered in the Hexi Corridor to date, possibly sourced from sphalerite deposits as raw materials.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the copper smelting technology of the Roman Empire spread to Mesopotamia. It is believed that during the 3rd-6th centuries, brass products may have been introduced to China [from the Roman Empire], as evidenced by the three brass artifacts. The absence of zinc in other bronze objects in the cemetery, and the small proportion of brass objects detected, suggest that brass was not widely used at the time. These findings indicate that brass products were present in the Hexi Corridor by the late Cao Wei period. The discovery of these three brass objects is of great significance for studying the origins and spread of brass technology.

Anthropological discoveries

The cemetery also provides valuable information for determining the composition of the local population and understanding historical cultural exchanges. By analyzing the Y chromosomes and complete mitochondrial genomes of 34 individuals from the Foyemiaowan-Xindiantai Cemetery, several conclusions can be drawn:

(1) Principal component analysis reveals that the population of this cemetery had a connection on the paternal side with the Tibeto-Burman population, as well as a connection on the maternal side with speakers of the Mongolian language.

(2) Pedigree comparison at the individual level shows that the population of this cemetery was mainly composed of related branches of the Tibeto-Burman and Han populations, as well as some northern Eurasian branches of the Altaic language group and a small proportion of southern East Asian branches. The population mitochondrial gene pool of this cemetery consists of northern East Asian, southern East Asian, and western Eurasian branches.

(3) In comparison with other ancient populations, this cemetery exhibits a high degree of genetic diversity, suggesting a history of complex population mixing. The above research indicates that while the Foyemiaowan-Xindiantai Cemetery shared similarities with the Central Plains in terms of archaeological culture, its population’s genetic structure and dietary composition differed significantly from those of the Han people. This finding aligns with the historical context of this region—frequent regime changes in the Hexi Corridor during this period, with local political forces established by various ethnic minorities emerging as the dominant factor in the region’s history.

The nearly century-long archaeological study of the Dunhuang cemeteries from the Wei, Jin and Sixteen Kingdoms periods has yielded remarkable achievements. However, to meet the demands of archaeological work in the new era, it is imperative to continue effectively organizing basic data and further exploration. At present, the focus of academic research on Dunhuang tombs from the Wei, Jin and Sixteen Kingdoms periods remains largely confined to tomb murals, early Taoism and witchcraft, while basic research on civilian tombs has been ignored. Given that the majority of excavated tombs are civilian in nature, in-depth research on civilian tombs becomes increasingly crucial. In addition, integrating tomb archaeological research with history, ethnology, sociology, and other disciplines will facilitate relevant research within a specific historical background. Multidisciplinary research is poised to become the prevailing trend in future research on the Dunhuang tombs from the Wei, Jin and Sixteen Kingdoms periods.


Ma Honglian is an associate research librarian from the Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.

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