Institute of Archaeology


China’s Great Tombs: a new route to the past and to recognising China today

26 October 2023, 6:30 pm–7:30 pm

A lecture poster with black background, text in different colours and a book cover on the left highlighting a green (jade) serpent/dragon

Dame Jessica Rawson (University of Oxford) will give an ICCHA Public Lecture at the UCL Institute of Archaeology on 26 October.

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to







International Centre for Chinese Heritage and Archaeology (ICCHA)


Archaeology Lecture Theatre G6
UCL Institute of Archaeology
31-34 Gordon Square
United Kingdom

This is an in-person event hosted by the International Centre for Chinese Heritage and Archaeology (ICCHA), which will take place in the Archaeology Lecture Theatre G6. The Public Lecture, which marks the beginning of celebrations for the 20th Anniversary of the ICCHA, is free and open to all. 


The fine bronzes jades and ceramics in our museums are usually recognised as monuments of China’s deep past. So too are the famous Terracotta Warriors buried near the First Emperor at Xi’an and, for example, an impressive set of bells in a tomb of a lord of the fifth century BC in central China. Yet they are not monuments, but the essential provisions for the afterlife of emperors and lords, an understanding founded on a long-lasting respect for the powers of the ancestors in the lives of their descendants. Not only is this important, deeply held belief rarely mentioned, but China’s great tombs, the palaces for the afterlife, filled with the furnishing for this future, are not often considered as a whole. The talk will illustrate the early stages of this central Chinese tradition from the Neolithic (c. 3000 BC) to the tomb of the First Emperor in the third century BC. And we can follow the later developments in the immense underground structures for the emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties near Beijing.

The talk will also look at the immense deposits of wind and water born loess, a fine dust-like sand - sometimes 200 metres in depth, across northern China and the Yellow River basin that was the stimulus for tombs of extraordinary depths. The geography and geology of the region that forms the core of China today witnessed not only this central cultural pivot, but also the major building tradition of platforms of pounded earth - loess again, with wooden structures above, as in the Forbidden City. These palaces and tombs are two of several key signs of the independence of China’s culture, separated from the stone buildings and deity figures of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome by the altitude of the Tibetan Plateau.

About the Speaker

Jessica Rawson, Emerita Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology and former Warden of Merton College, Oxford (1994-2010), was made Honorary Professor in the school of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University in 2019. For over twenty years before moving to Oxford, she worked in the Department of Oriental Antiquities (now the Asia Department) at the British Museum, as Keeper from 1987 to 1994. In 2005-2006, she led the group of curators of the China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795 exhibition at the Royal Academy, bringing to London magnificent works of art from the Palace Museum in Beijing. For more than forty years, she has visited, researched and lectured in most of China’s provinces, including at archaeological sites on both sides of its borders with Mongolia and South Siberia. She was awarded the title of Dame in 2002 and received the Tang Prize in Sinology for ‘Giving Voice to Mute Objects’ in 2022.

All welcome!