New mummy, new questions

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Strange seeds found as part of tomb's treasure yet to be identified


The 200-year-old tomb whose owner is believed to be a wealthy woman in southern Vietnam's Long Thanh District.

The mummy unearthed recently in the southern province of Dong Nai is not the oldest of its kind found in Vietnam, but it has led to new questions about body preservation techniques used here hundreds of years ago.

The excavation of the tomb, the resting place of a rich woman who died two hundred years ago, was carried out by local archaeologists from September 5 to 20 in Long Thanh Districts's Cau Xeo area.

Work at the site began one year ago when Dr. Pham Duc Manh led a group of Ho Chi Minh City scientists and experts from the province's Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism to survey the site before it was cleared for a new highway project.

Based on the design of the rectangular tomb, which covers an area of 40 square meters, including three distinct rooms (outer wall area, the coffin room or "outer coffin," and the coffin itself), the scientists assumed the owner must have come from the upper classes.

Inside the elephant-shaped roof cover, which serves as an outer protection area, stands a 1.5-meter tall wall, according to a research report released by the scientists. This outer structure looks rather like a house. The actual tomb 8.5 meters in length and 4.5 meters in width is the center of the structure, and behind it is an altar decorated with a poem engraved in Chinese and a pair of stone carvings hung symmetrically. This area is considered the "outer coffin."

According to Dr. Manh, the tomb's design is unique with several patterns and decorations, including embossed images of a kylin, dragon, tortoise, phoenix, deer, and banyan tree, which in the past are only found on the tombs of the rich.

"The relic should be restored and relocated to a cultural and historical preservation area," said Manh, who is head of the Department of Museum Studies and Cultural Heritage at the National University of Humanities and Social Sciences in HCMC.

Lotus leaves and unidentified plants

The report says the woman's body found in the tomb is well-preserved.

"The body was well-shrouded and wears ten layers of beautiful, colorful clothes made of brocade and glossy flowered satin and boat-like shoes. Her hair remains whereas some of her toe joints were found lost in the shoes. Besides a thick layer of ashes, she is dunnaged by several blankets and traditional paper, which has become an adhesive over time."

Most importantly, the scientists found a thick layer of lotus leaves and two kilograms of peppercorn-like seeds inside the coffin. That the plants cover the mummy from top to toe has raised questions among the researchers.

According to Professor Do Tat Loi, Dr. Quan The Dan and other herbalists, lotus leaves have been used in Vietnamese traditional medicine for centuries as tranquillizers and detoxifiers. The scientists suggest that traditional beliefs may dictate that the body was covered by lotus leaves as their tranquilizing and detoxifying properties were thought to ensure eternal resting and peace.

Regarding the black and brown seeds placed near the sarcophagus' legs, Dr. Manh said the same unidentified seeds were found in two HCMC tombs, located in District 3 and District 10, years ago. "It is not pepper," he said.

According to a lab test by the Biology Department at the National University of Natural Sciences in HCMC, the seeds found in the tomb in the city are the seeds of an Acacia Tree (Entanda sp.Fabaceae) that grows in some of Vietnam's tropical forests and is called the cham bam tree by the Champ people of the central region. The plant is used to cure injures caused by snakebite.

On the other hand, both the seeds found in Dong Nai and the city are also similar to those of the Cananga Tree (Cananga odorata), which is used as an antiseptic by locals and produces a fragrant oil. The locals call the rare plant the cong chua (Princess) tree.

In addition, local residents have also compared the seeds to those of several local fruits. A lab test from the university will identify the exact origins of the seeds soon, scientists said.

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