Inscription Leads Archaeologists to Tomb of One of the Last Han Emperors

A manufacturing date on a vessel confirmed a Chinese mausoleum’s ties to second-century A.D. ruler Liu Zhi

Vessel
The vessel was produced around the time when Liu Zhi’s successor, Ling, was building a mausoleum for the deceased emperor. Luoyang City Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute

Archaeologists say the remains of a stone vessel found in a mausoleum in China’s Henan Province offer near-definitive evidence that second-century A.D. emperor Liu Zhi, known posthumously as Huan, was buried there.

“Together with the previous documents about the location of the emperor's tomb, the discovery makes us almost certain that it is the tomb of emperor Liu Zhi,” Wang Xianqiu, who led the excavation project, tells Lyu Qiuping, Gui Juan and Shi Linjing of state-run news agency Xinhua.

Researchers had previously guessed that the tomb, located in the city of Luoyang, belonged to the Han dynasty emperor. An inscription on the vessel dating its year of manufacture to 180 A.D. appears to confirm this suspicion. Wang, a scholar at the Luoyang City Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, says the vessel was produced around the time when Liu Zhi’s successor, Liu Hong, or Ling, was building a mausoleum for the deceased emperor. The artifact is shaped like a basin and stands about ten inches tall, with a circumference of more than two feet.

Liu Zhi ruled China from 146 to 168. He took the throne as a teenager, with Empress-Dowager Liang Na and her brother Liang Ji acting as his regents. Later, after Liang Na’s death in 150, he allied with a powerful bloc of eunuchs at the court to kill Liang Ji and consolidate power. As Mark Cartwright explains for Ancient History Encyclopedia, eunuchs—typically individuals taken from border territories, castrated and enslaved in the royal household—held favored positions at Chinese court, as their lack of family ties ostensibly endeared them to the emperor. In practice, however, eunuchs often used their proximity to the ruler to gain political influence.

Inscription Leads Archaeologists to Tomb of One of the Last Han Emperors
Archaeologists have been exploring the cemetery site since 2017. Luoyang City Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute

Per Week in China, Liu Zhi’s empowerment of the eunuchs contributed to the gradual fragmentation of the Chinese empire by alienating his elite courtiers. As 11th-century chronicler Sima Guang wrote in an essay later translated by historian Rafe de Crespigny, “[T]he ruinous disorder inherited by Emperors Huan and Ling was compounded by their own stupid tyranny.” Plagued by instability and corrupt leadership, the Han dynasty collapsed in 220. Following the empire’s demise, China split into three warring states known as the Three Kingdoms.

As the History Blog notes, Luoyang, located on the shores of the Luo River, was the capital of the Eastern Han dynasty for almost 200 years. Its establishment in 25 A.D. marked a shift from the Western to Eastern Han period, and the city remained the seat of power until the dynasty’s collapse in 220.

Since 2017, researchers have found more than 100 tombs at a cemetery in the city’s Baicaopo Village. The mausoleum, located at the northeast corner of the cemetery, is a large complex that includes homes. Ancient literature suggests that the burial grounds’ administrators, guards, low-ranking concubines and other workers lived at the site, perhaps alongside nobles tasked with keeping vigil over the emperor's tomb. The tomb itself was buried in an underground “palace for the dead,” per the History Blog.

Wang tells Xinhua that the discovery of the inscribed vessel contributes to scholars’ understanding of how burials were conducted for emperors in the Eastern Han dynasty. In addition to the vessel, excavations have revealed structural elements of the tomb, including a corridor, a well and drainage channels.