Chinese archaeologists have found textiles in a mysterious tomb dating back nearly 2,500 years in eastern Jiangxi Province, the oldest to be discovered in China's history.
The textiles, which are well-preserved and feature stunning dyeing and weaving technologies, will rewrite the history of China's textile industry, says Wang Yarong, an archaeologist who has been following the findings in the textile sector for more than three decades.
"Chinese anthropologists suspect the textile industry burgeoned in distant periods of history and this is the first piece of concrete evidence to support their hypothesis," she said.
Wang and her colleagues found more than 20 pieces of fine silk, flax and cotton cloth in 22 of a total 47 coffins unearthed from the tomb in Lijia village of Jing'an county.
"Most of them are fine fabrics and the largest piece is 130 cm long, 52 cm wide and woven with complicated techniques," said Wang, a researcher with the textiles preservation center of the Beijing-based Capital Museum.
A Peking University professor found with infrared devices that a piece of cotton cloth was partly red and partly black. "It was dyed red with vermilion," said Professor Zhang Xiaomei.
Historical records show the Arabians were able to produce vermilion in the eighth century and the Europeans learned the methods from them in the 17th century.
Yet the tomb where these fabrics were found is believed to date back to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 B.C.).
The tomb, 16 meters long, 11.5 meters wide and three meters deep, was found last December and the excavation was completed only last week.
It contained the largest group of coffins ever discovered in a single tomb and its excavation was dubbed "the most important archeological project of the year" by cultural experts and the Chinese media.
By Monday, experts had unearthed more than 200 heritage pieces from the tomb, including copperware, jade, gold and handicrafts made from bamboo: a well-preserved fan 37 cm long and 25 cm wide and a bamboo mat 180 cm long and 80 cm wide.
Seven of the coffins contained human skeletons, four of which were identified as healthy females aged around 20, said Wei Dong, an archaeologist from northeast China's Jilin University.
Wei and other members of the research team assumed the four young women were maids who had been buried alive in sacrifice alongside a dead aristocrat, as was a centuries-old custom in ancient China.
Five other coffins contained bodily tissues, which scientists have identified as human brains that have shrunk to the size of a fist but retained their original structure.
"We're yet to conduct a DNA analysis to see whether these people were genetically linked to one another," said Huang Jinglue, head of the archaeological team.
Experts say the discovery is unique because the skeletons had been preserved well in an area where the soil was acidic and unsuited to the preservation of human bodies.