Food and Wine Frescoes from the Wei and Jin Tombs

Desert Near Wein-and-Jin Tombs, 2012
Desert Near Wei-and-Jin Tombs, 2012

In an inhospitable area between the Gobi and the Taklamakan Deserts northeast of Jaiyuguan, China a time capsule was buried almost 2000 years ago. Underneath the treeless, grey sand that blankets the region today are a series of over 1000 tombs from the Wei-and Jin period (265-420 ACE). The walls of the tombs are decorated with frescoes that depict details from everyday life in a land that was temperate, fertile and teaming with life. Images of farming, hunting, animal husbandry, cooking, feasting, and playing musical instruments adorn the walls; there is even an image of China’s early pony-express mail delivery that shows a galloping horse and a man carrying a letter in his hand with an urgent look on his face. Paintings filled with the nuances from the everyday lives of the people who lived near one of China’s main Silk Road corridors in the remote hinterlands of the dynasty.

Many of the frescoes have to do with gathering or preparing food. The one depicted below shows a woman and a girl picking mulberries or mulberry leaves. The fruits could have been used to make jams, juice, sauces, desserts or wine; or they could be dried and eaten like raisins. The leaves could have been used to give a sour flavor to food and salads, used to make tea, used as anti-inflammatory medicine, or if of the correct species to feed hungry silk-worms and provide a place for the metamorphosis of next season’s egg-laying moths.

Mulberry Picking
Mulberry Picking

The girl is wearing wearing ribbons and both she and the adult female have short hair which identify them as from the Qiuci ethnic group. The Qiuci were Indo-European settlers in ancient China who spoke an Indo-Iranian dialect, traded on the Silk Road, and eventually became part of the early Uyghur empire. Many historians believe that they arose from the people who first brought Buddhism into China from India and Pakistan. Given the Indo-European roots of the Qiuci, the mulberry leaves could have been used as a flavoring for bread, as is done in some Indian parathas today.


The second fresco presented here show servants preparing a meal. The head cook is picking meat from bones on a board to the right. Possibly recycling meat for another meal from uneaten parts of a roast, or preparing bones for soup. Mutton is hanging from hooks on the ceiling to age, and another cook is stirring a pot to the left. In the foreground and background there appear to be steamer trays lined with dumplings or buns.

Warming Wine
Warming Wine

The third fresco shows a maid warming wine. She holds a tray with cups in her right hand and with her left she reaches for a ladle to fill the cups with wine from the warmer. Grape and raisin production and wine-making is an ancient industry in Xinjiang and Gansu and this painting shows the popularity of wine in the Wei and Jin Dynasty.

Dining on Kebaba
Dining on Kebabs

The last painting shows two men having dinner together. The man to the left is the host of the meal and perhaps a noble because he is sitting on a low-bed or a couch. His guest is someone of relatively equal importance because he is depicted at the side of the host and more or less the same size as the host (other frescos denote a marked difference in the size between master or mistress and their servants). The guest proffers a large trident-like skewer with bite-size bits of meat on it – kebabs. Although evidence for kebab eating goes back to Akrotiri, Greece in the 17th Century BCE, and possibly earlier to Ancient Mesopotamia, this fresco gives a solid date range to the food in western China at almost 2000 years ago. Introduced to China by Indo-Europeans coming across the main track of the Northern Silk Road (the Uyghur word is kewap), kebabs are now enjoyed all across China.

Many other images are captured in the tomb paintings: dancing, raising chickens, a Bactrian camel on a lead, and herding horses. To preserve the paintings, only one or two tombs are open to the public at a time and different tombs are open on a rotating basis to allow for repeat visits. One has to descend almost 30 meters beneath the arid surface to enter the cool, damp rooms of the tombs to view the frescoes, but it is a unique way to experience life in ancient China. Where there is now barren desert, there were rich farms, pastureland, and trading posts teaming with travelers and traders, moving goods, ideas and culture around on the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photos from postcards of the Wei and Jin Tombs by Laura Kelley (photography is not allowed in the tombs)).

Flowers That Have Changed the World of Food #2: Saffron

“Your lips drop sweetness like honeycomb, my bride, syrup and milk are under your tongue, and your dress had the scent of Lebanon. Your cheeks are an orchard of pomegranates, an orchard full of rare fruits, spikenard and saffron, sweet cane and cinnamon.”

Fresco of Saffron Gatherers from Akrotiri

What substance was revered by the ancients, was used in Cleopatra’s baths to enhance her beauty and pleasure, was used to treat melancholy and a multitude of gastrointestinal ailments and fetched is weight in gold in Philadelphia markets when brought in by Pennsylvania “Dutch” farmers? The answer is, of course, the stamens from the Crocus sativus flower also known as saffron.

The earliest pictorial reference we have of saffron cultivation comes from the Minoan civilization on Akrotiri which has a number of frescoes of women cultivating the flowers and using them to treat various illnesses. The eruption of the Santorini volcano that destroyed their civilization provides the date of 1600-1500 BC as a fixed point in time for the cultivation of saffron by the Minoans. The cultivation and use of saffron is probably much older than that, however, because the flower that yields the precious spice hails from Southwest Asia. The Minoans likely came to saffron as a traded item from the east as part of their great network of sea and land traders that ranged the ancient Mediterranean.

Native to Southwest Asia, the Crocus species that produces the valuable reddish-orange hued stamens treasured by cooks around the world to color and flavor their dishes was created by men and women who used directed selection to breed a new species of flower with extremely long stamens. That this occurred some 20 centuries before the Common Era is worthy of a bow to the agricultural and commercial sophistication of the early civilizations involved in its use and trade.

The peoples of the Fertile Crescent used saffron as a pigment in cave paintings as early as 40,000 – 50,000 years BCE, and later the Sumerians used it medicinally in remedies and potions. By about 4000 years ago, the culinary use of saffron had begun, as witnessed in the early Hebrews revering it as a sweet-smelling spice in the words of the Song of Solomon. The first scientific documentation of saffron’s use was noted in an early botanical produced for Assyrian King Ashurbanipal seven centuries BCE.

Modern Saffron Cultivation

Although it is unclear when the cultivation and trade of it began, Persian use of the flower as a dye, perfume and medicine was truly prolific and by the 10th Century BCE, there is evidence of mass cultivation at Derbena and Isfahan. By 500 BC, the Persians had spread cultivation of the saffron Crocus corms throughout the Persian Empire along Silk Road routes and cultivation in Northern India and Kashmir was formally underway.

How saffron reached China is a matter of debate. Some sources (the Bencao Gangmu) place its arrival as early in the 16th Century BCE and brought by Persian merchants along the Great Silk Road. Other sources attribute the arrival in China as later in the 3rd Century CE and attribute Kashmir as the source of the flower. It’s likely given the skew of time between the two documents that there were multiple introductions of the spice into China with the earliest coming in 1600 BCE or sometime before.

In Greco-Roman times the Phoenicians dominated the Mediterranean trade of the spice, and when the Romans conquered and later settled Gaul at the dawn of the Common Era, they brought saffron with them into Europe. European centers of cultivation grew up after the decline of the Roman Empire and the Crusades cut European traders off from important sources of cultivation and trade. First Basel then Nuremburg, and then by the 14th Century, trade centers sprung up in the coastal regions of Eastern England.

Saffron Threads

Saffron cultivation came to North America with the arrival of Anabaptists originally from Eastern and Central Europe who settled in the Susquehanna River Valley and later became known as the Pennsylvania “Dutch”. These settlers set up a profitable trade in saffron in the 1730s and 1740s with Spanish settlers in the Caribbean that earned its weight in gold for the saffron farmers. This trade persisted until the war of 1812 ruined the trade by the destruction of the American merchant vessels that had been used to ship the spice to the Caribbean.

So once again trade along the land and maritime routes of the Silk Road was instrumental in spreading the use of saffron throughout the ancient known world. From Fertile Crescent and Persian roots use of the herb for dyes, perfumes, medicine and culinary purposes spread first to Greece and other Mediterranean countries and then to the rest of Asia, Europe and North America. Highly valued as a drug and aphrodisiac and used by Alexander the Great to heal his battle wounds, saffron’s golden hues and rich blanket of gentle flavor has been used as an ingredient in wine, rice, curries and stews for millennia. It is a spice that has roots as old as human civilization and was an integral part of the early globalization brought about by the Great Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley)