The 1,000-year-old tomb of a rich nobleman from the Liao Dynasty has been discovered in Datong City, Shanxi Province in northern China, featuring beautiful murals, ceilings covered in constellations of stars and a statue of the tomb's occupant.

The tomb, known as M1, was discovered by archaeologists from the Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology in April 2011, buried 1.5m below ground level near the Datong-Taiyuan Railway line.

It is circular in shape and made from brick, consisting of three components – an entrance corridor, a passageway with stairs and a burial chamber.

A bedroom scene depicted in a Chinese tomb from the Liao Dynasty period. It was traditional for the tomb occupant not to be featured.
A bedroom scene depicted in a Chinese tomb from the Liao Dynasty period. It was traditional for the tomb occupant not to be featured.Photo courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics
Close-up of the bedroom scene mural, which depicts Liao Dynasty servants in authentic traditional dress for the period
Close-up of the bedroom scene mural, which depicts Liao Dynasty servants in authentic traditional dress for the periodPhoto courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics

The walls of the tomb chamber are lime plaster covered with several large murals depicting the daily domestic life of a noble during the Liao Dynasty (also known as the Khitan Empire), which lasted from 907-1125 AD.

The Khitan people (known in Mandarin as "Qìdān") were normadic people from Mongolia and Manchuria who dominated parts of China during the Liao Dynasty and ruled over the Han Chinese. Very few relics of their reign have survived till today.

The largest mural is that of a bedroom scene, which shows a large bed in the centre of a room and a six-panelled folding panel behind it, just under blue and red curtains.

The room is attended by six male and female attendants in traditional dress bearing a variety of tools to provide their master with comfort, while a cat and a dog frolic at the foot of the bed.

Another mural in the tomb depicts auspicious items and a poem with wise proverbs
Another mural in the tomb depicts more servants, some auspicious items and a poem with wise proverbsPhoto courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics

Another mural depicts five middle-aged male attendants holding serving utensils, with containers and trays of fruit and wine at their feet.

Next to them, auspicious items are depicted, including a deer, a crane with a red crown, a crawling yellow turtle, flowering peonies, and an axe standing on an orange lotus flower-shaped base, carried by a green snake.

Close-up of the mural, which shows the poem with inked characters, some of which have faded over time
Close-up of the mural, which shows the poem with inked characters, some of which have faded over timePhoto courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics

In the top right-hand corner of the mural is a saddle, and next to that is an unrolled scroll bearing the text of a poem.

Although some of the characters have faded over time, part of it is still legible and reads: "Time tells that bamboo can endure cold weather. Live as long as the spirits of the crane and turtle."

This mural depicts farmers and labourers at work in the fields, as well as cattle and a carriage. Unfinished sketches that were rubbed out are still visible on the wall
This mural depicts farmers and labourers at work in the fields, as well as cattle and a carriage. Unfinished sketches that were rubbed out are still visible on the wallPhoto courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics

There is also a mural depicting farming, with people, cattle, farming implements and a carriage, against a background of mountains and plants. Unfinished sketches are visible beneath the paintings.

The curved ceiling of the circular tomb, which features constellations of stars painted in red
The curved ceiling of the circular tomb, which features constellations of stars painted in redPhoto courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics
Pillars, architraves, friezes and brackets have been painted to make it look like they are supporting the ceiling
Pillars, architraves, friezes and brackets have been painted to make it look like they are supporting the ceilingPhoto courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics

The ceiling of the tomb is curved and covered with stars and completed constellations painted in red.

In between the murals, the tomb's creators have painted columns, architraves, friezes and brackets to look as if they are holding the ceiling up.

A mural painted at the tomb's entrance, featuring an old man and a woman who are probably gods, and a garuda (mythical bird) on some
A mural painted at the tomb's entrance, featuring an old man and a maiden who are probably gods, and a garuda (mythical bird) on some "auspicious clouds"Photo courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics

The entrance of the burial chamber features a mural depicting an old man and a maiden who are most likely gods as they are surrounded by flames, precious pearls, rhinoceros horns, ivory and silver ingots, on either side of the entrance.

Over the entrance is painted a garuda, a large mythical bird from Buddhist mythology on some "auspicious clouds", according to the archaeologists.

When the archaeologists opened the tomb, they found that the raised brick coffin platform had been destroyed and grave goods were scattered randomly in the burial chamber, showing that the tomb had previously been robbed.

The only existing representation of the tomb's occupant - a small carved effigy of a man
The only existing representation of the tomb's occupant - a small carved sandstone effigy of a man wearing a black folded hat and a black robe with a jewelled belt, sitting cross-legged on a stone platformPhoto courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics

There were also no signs of any human remains in the tomb or depictions of the tomb's occupant on any of the walls.

However research shows that the people of the late Liao Dynasty were Buddhist, so it was not unusual for tombs of the period to contain no human remains, but instead have a small carved effigy of the tomb's occupant. This particular statue is made from grey sandstone.

Grave goods from the Datong tomb
Grave goods from the Datong tomb: (from left) A gilt bronze seal in the shape of a man, a gilt bronze seal signet ring and a figurine of a boy made from amberPhoto courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics
A green porcelain bowl found in the Datong tomb
A green porcelain bowl found in the Datong tombPhoto courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics

Most of the grave goods were stolen, but there remain a few pottery bowls, personal grooming items like bronze tweezers, as well as a figurine of a boy made from amber, a gilt bronze seal in the shape of a figurine, and another gilt bronze seal signet ring.

The study on the Datung tomb is published in Chinese Cultural Relics, the official English translation of the award-winning Chinese archaeology journal Wenwu (which means Cultural Relics in Mandarin).

Published since the 1950s, Wenwu is well known in China and abroad for its quality articles and in-depth reporting of Chinese archaeological surveys and fieldwork. Chinese Cultural Relics is published quarterly, with subscriptions are available through East View Press and other subscription agents.