Three Gorges Dam
The coffins were found on the side of a cliff near China's Three Gorges Dam Reuters

More than 131 hanging wooden coffins, balanced on the side of a 100-metre mountain side, have been discovered in China. The mysterious find, believed to be about 1,200 years old, were located in China's Hubei province.

They were placed in rectangular-shaped holes that were carved into the side of the mountain or wedged between rocks, while sitting above a river in Zigui County, in the village of Yanglinqiao, close to the site of the Three Gorges Dam. The man-made caves are sometimes known as "Caves of the Fairies" to some people and the practice is stooped in superstition.

China hanging coffins
A picture taken on 30 August 2002 of ancient wooden coffins suspended halfway up a mountain cliff in the Three Gorges area Reuters

Similar discoveries have been made all over southeast Asia, from Chinese provinces Yunnan, Sichuan, Jiangxi and Fujian to the Philippines. It is believed that they were carried up to extreme heights so to avoid the bodies being eaten by animals and insects or to be in reach of the gods.

Archaeologists believe the coffins were made during the Tang dynasty (618-907), and may have belonged to the ancient ethnic minority Bo people, who lived in southern China. It is not yet certain how the heavy wooden coffins would have been pulled up to such heights, but it has been suggested that they were either taken up on a series of ladders, or pulled up by ropes.

It is not yet known who discovered the coffins, or when they were found on the mountain. The most recent examples of hanging coffins in China were carbon-dated to about 400 years ago in the middle and later periods of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), while the recent discoveries are thought to date back further. The earliest hanging coffin was also found in the Three Gorges area, dating back to about 2,500 years to the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC- 476 BC).