Why archaeologists fear opening the tomb of China’s first emperor

Ancient writings tell of traps that could poison those who try to investigate inside the mysterious coffin.

In 1974, farmers in the Shaanxi province of central-eastern China were digging a well in search of water for their crops when they came across what soon became known as the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century: today’s famous Terracotta Army.

The discovery occurred in the vicinity of where, 2,200 years earlier, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of united China, had built his mausoleum.

The brothers who made the discovery knew that the area, precisely because of its proximity to the famous tomb of the man who ruled from 221 to 210 BC, was an archaeological site, so they hardly noticed that their shovels hit five meters deep with something hard they did not insist with their blows and notified the authorities.

That first circular shape made in terracotta that farmers saw was the tip of the iceberg. Archaeological excavations revealed that the fields were littered with thousands of life-size terracotta models of soldiers and war horses, plus acrobats, officials and animals.

The mission of this Terracotta Army was to “protect” the nearby mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the formidable first emperor of the Qin dynasty.

Although a good part of the necropolis surrounding the mausoleum has already been explored, the emperor’s tomb has never been opened and a great deal of intrigue surrounds it.

No human eye has yet looked inside this tomb in the more than 2,200 years it has been there, ever since the dreaded emperor was sealed within.

The tomb took 30 years to build and 700,000 workers were required. Qin Shi Huang was the one who ordered the construction of his own mausoleum in 246 BC, which consists of a complex of tombs.

The emperor was buried with the elements that he estimated were necessary to spend his life in the afterlife. The location of his tomb was carefully analyzed so that it was protected by the Qinling Mountains on one side and Mount Li and the Wei River.

The exterior inscription reads: “The Emperor in his wisdom inspects the four parts of his kingdom. Tall and short, noble and humble. Great is the virtue of our Emperor. Who pacifies the four corners of the earth.

The entire universe is our Emperor’s realm stretching west to the desert, south as far as the houses look, north, east to the eastern ocean, north beyond Dahsia. Wherever human life is found.”

Ultimately, archaeologists are concerned that an excavation could damage the tomb and this could lead to the loss of vital historical information.

Even with the high technology that currently exists, the only way to open the tomb would be with invasive archaeological techniques, which could cause significant deterioration of transcendent material that is probably irrecoverable.

Scientists fear that what happened in the city of Troy could happen, when its discoverer, the German Heinrich Schliemann, in the 1870s, destroyed almost all traces of that urban settlement that he had longed to discover with his exploration.

The explorer, due to haste and ingenuity, destroyed part of the most precious legacy of that city, destroyed by an earthquake. With this precedent as the most serious of a long list of similar events, Chinese archaeologists fear losing patience and making the same mistakes.

Although the techniques are becoming more sophisticated and non-invasive, experts have not yet decided to enter the tomb.

One idea is to use muons, the subatomic product of cosmic rays colliding with atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, which can peer through structures like an advanced X-ray.

This is a system that has been used, for example, to see inside ancient pyramids. Even so, these proposals still do not have a consensus.

But there are other factors that make archaeologists fearful. Opening the tomb could bring much more immediate and deadly dangers as well.

In an account written by the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian around 100 years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, he explains that the tomb is connected to traps designed to kill any intruders.

“Palaces and scenic towers were built for a hundred officials, and the tomb was filled with rare artifacts and wonderful treasures.

Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows ready to shoot anyone who entered the tomb. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, and the great sea, and it was set to flow mechanically,” the author said.

Even though weapons more than 2,000 years old are highly likely to fail, this account suggests that a flood of toxic liquid mercury could wash away intruders.

Although this may sound fanciful, in 2020 a study by the South China Normal University published in the journal Nature reported the existence of high concentrations of mercury in the surroundings of the tomb. These values ​​are especially high for that region.

“Highly volatile mercury may be escaping through cracks, which developed in the structure over time, and our research supports ancient chronicle records about the tomb, which is believed to have never been opened/looted,” the researchers concluded. article authors.

At the moment, Qin Shi Huang’s tomb remains sealed and unseen, but not forgotten. It is to be hoped that scientific and technological advances will make it possible in the near future to overcome the fear of digging into the tomb that the emperor so jealously closed to humanity 2,200 years ago.