Why archaeologists are too scared to open the tomb of China’s first emperor

Why archaeologists are too scared to open the tomb of China’s first emperor

Why archaeologists are too scared to open the tomb of China’s first emperor

In 1974, farmers stumbled upon one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of all time in an unassuming field in China’s Shaanxi province. While digging, they found fragments of a human figure made of clay. It was just the tip of the iceberg. Archaeological excavations revealed that the field lay above a number of pits filled with thousands of full-scale terracotta models of soldiers and war horses, not to mention acrobats, esteemed officials and other animals.

It seems that the mission of this terracotta army was to guard the nearby mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangthe formidable first emperor of the Qin dynasty who reigned from 221 to 210 BCE.

While large parts of the necropolis surrounding the mausoleum have been explored, the emperor’s tomb itself has never been opened despite the enormous amount of intrigue surrounding it. Eyes may not have looked inside this tomb for over 2,000 years, when the feared emperor was sealed within.

One of the main reasons for this hesitation is that archaeologists worry about how the excavations could damage the tomb, thereby losing vital historical information. Currently, only invasive archaeological techniques could be used to enter the tomb, which was at high risk of causing irreparable damage.

One of the clearest examples of this comes from the excavations of the city of Troy in the 1870s by Heinrich Schliemann. In its haste and naivety, his work succeeded in destroying almost all traces of the very city he set out to discover. Archaeologists are sure they don’t want to get impatient and make the same mistakes again.

The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China
The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. Image Credit: Aaron Zhu/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Scientists have floated the idea of ​​using some non-invasive techniques to look inside the tomb. One idea is to use muons, the subatomic product of cosmic rays colliding with atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, which can pass through structures like an advanced X-ray. However, it seems that most of these proposals have been slow to take off.

Opening the tomb could also lead to much more immediate and deadly dangers. In an account written by ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian about 100 years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, he explains that the tomb is connected to traps designed to kill any intruder.

“Palace and viewing towers for a hundred officials were built, and the tomb was filled with rare artifacts and marvelous treasures. Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and primed arrows to shoot anyone who entered in the tomb. Mercury was used to simulate the Hundred Rivers, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, and the Great Sea, and set to flow mechanically,” it reads.

Even if 2,000-year-old arc weapons fail, this account suggests that a stream of poisonous liquid mercury could flow through the gravediggers. It may seem like an empty threat, but scientific studies have looked at mercury concentrations around the tomb and found levels significantly higher than they would expect in typical terrain.

“The highly volatile mercury can escape through cracks, which have developed in the structure over time, and our investigation supports ancient chronicles at the tomb, which were never opened/looted,” the authors conclude. authors of a 2020 article.

For now, Qin Shi Huang’s tomb remains sealed and unseen, but not forgotten. When the time is right, however, it is possible that scientific advances can finally delve into the secrets that have lain here undisturbed for some 2,200 years.

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