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Soul-laden Vessels: Pujiang’s Warring States Period Boat-Coffins

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ByXiao Yi Photographs byLiu Qiankun and as credited Translation by Bruce Humes

Soul-laden Vessels: Pujiang’s Warring States Period Boat-Coffins

During the Warring States Period (475–221 BC), the “boat-coffin” burial custom was very popular in the Sichuan Basin. The deceased was placed inside a wooden coffin shaped like a small craft, in the hope that his or her soul would be transported by the river waters to shores of the afterworld. In September 2016, a very large-scale site containing clusters of such coffins was discovered in Pujiang County, on the outskirts of Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Who lay within them, and what was the destination of these boats with souls on board?
In September 2016, a large-scale group of boat-coffins was discovered in Yanjinggou, Pujiang County, Sichuan. As the excavation proceeded, the secrets of a 14,000 square-meter Warring States Period burial site were unveiled.

In the eyes of Pujiang’s residents, Yanjinggou is a magical site. It is both the name of a place as well as a creek whose source was located in a ravine, south of Pujiang, in Changqiu Mountain. Although it has dried up, the locals still refer to the place where it once flowed as Yanjinggou (lit., salt well ditch). In recent decades, countless ancient tombs have been unearthed there, leaving behind many a mysterious legend. Then in September 2016, from Yanjinggou came news that a huge site containing clusters of boat-coffins—more than 50—had been discovered, possibly constituting a record number in the history of Chinese archaeology.

When I arrive at Yanjinggou, an area the size of a football pitch has already been dug up. More than 20 ancient tombs are arrayed, mostly in a northwest-southeast orientation, and not far away are the markings of a long rectangle, indicating an area awaiting excavation. In the middle of the cemetery, Tomb M16 is in the process of being jointly excavated by Chengdu Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute and Pujiang County Institute of Cultural Relic Management. The workers wrap hemp rope around the coffin cover, and it takes the concerted efforts of six men to finally lift the massive lid—nearly seven meters long, and weighing over half a ton—out of the grave.

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