A massive tomb complex has been discovered in China’s northern Hebei Province that has archaeologists and historians puzzled. China’s Xinhua news reports that over 110 tombs have been discovered near the Beifudi archaeological site. Human settlement at the site itself dates back to the Neolithic area some 10,000 years ago, but these newfound tombs themselves are believed to be just over 2,000 years old. The tombs contain mostly urn-type burials, a method of interring the dead inside man-sized earthenware pots.
Most interesting – and macabre – of all? Nearly all of the tombs (except six) were found to contain the remains of children between the ages of two and three years old. Given that the tomb only contains such a specific and narrow demographic, it’s likely the children were intended as some sort of sacrifice or burial rite.
Very few artifacts other than the urns have been found at the site, meaning this was no ordinary tomb. In most other imperial tombs known in China and elsewhere, rulers are usually buried alongside displays of their wealth and power. These children are buried nearly alone in their macabre mass tomb, however, and the bodies have been carefully dismembered. The skulls and feet of each of the children were removed and placed in smaller urns before the rest of their bodies were placed into larger urns.
Li Jun, an archeologist from Shanxi University, told Xinhua that there are three likely reasons for such a mass burial of children: plague, over-exhaustion from forced labor, or some sort of sacrifice. Li says the tomb could be somehow related to the legend of Xu Fu, a court sorcerer sent by the Qin Dynasty emperor Qin Shi Huang to find the elixir of immortality. According to the legend, Xu Fu took 500 young boys and 500 young girls with him, sailing east. Neither the children nor Xu Fu ever returned, but legend has it that they settled in what is now Japan. The legend also states that Qin Shi Huang later visited Xu Fu there and brought along 3000 young girls and boys with him for the journey, none of which ever returned.
While the legend of Xu Fu has surely been added to or made more imaginative over the years as all myths and folklore do, there is likely at least some truth to the tale. Could this be the resting place of hundreds children who have until now been only the stuff of legend? Why and how did they all die at such a young age? Hopefully, analysis of the tombs will in time shed light on these mysteries and the legend of Xu Fu.