XIAN, China: The tomb of China’s first emperor is potentially one of the most spectacular on Earth, but a heated debate is developing over whether to excavate it at all.
Chinese archaeologists have expressed concern that they do not currently have the expertise to properly preserve what they find inside the tomb – located in China’s central province of Shaanxi – but new technologies may be closing that gap.
Qinshi Huang’s enormous tomb complex is the home of Xian’s famed terracotta warriors; 8,000 life-size figures that were discovered by accident in 1974. The tomb itself, though, has not yet been disturbed.
Historical records suggest the coffin of the first emperor, ruler of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC to 207 BC), is encased in copper and sits in a large tomb chamber full of fine vessels, precious stones and other rarities. The ceiling of that chamber is thought to be studded with jewels that represent the stars, sun and moon – while on the floor, rivers of mercury represent the earth.
Recent preliminary surveys have found high concentrations of mercury under the chamber, backing up that claim.
Survey work also indicates that the main burial vaults of Qinshi Huang remain undisturbed. But, historic records attest that grave robbers could have cleaned it out – along with many other Xian-based tombs, dubbed China’s ‘Valley of the Kings’ after the resting place of many Egyptian pharoahs, including King Tutankhamen.
“The cultural enlightenment from excavating the tomb of Qinshi Huang will surpass the pyramids of Egypt,” Zhang Wuchang of Hong Kong University said in a recent online article that sparked the debate.
Already 40 million people have visited the outside of the tomb of Qinshi Huang since the discovery of the warriors. But according to Zhang, tourism revenues in Shaanxi would double if archaeologists opened the tomb itself.
However, “Many view this kind of thinking as the main problem facing China today,” argued Duan Qingbo, head of the excavation team of the Qinshi Huang mausoleum. “A lot of officials are only thinking about money and the benefits that such an excavation will bring to them. Meanwhile they ignore the science.”
Scientists have to ensure they can properly preserve what is found, before any dig is undertaken, said Duan – a problem that has plagued previous Chinese digs.
He recalls the 1950s excavation of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Dingling Mausoleum near Beijing that was supposed to have brought China to the forefront of world archaeology. In reality, the dig was a disaster due to poor quality work that was worsened by the intervening Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when Red Guards destroyed some of the finds, including the remains of the dead emperor.
“Chinese archaeologists have ruined many objects because excavations were not properly done and the technology was lacking,” Duan said.
This not only included the bodies of former emperors and empresses, but also clothes, paintings and any other artefacts susceptible to disintegration after being exposed to different atmospheric conditions following up to 2,200 years of burial, he said.
An application to excavate Qianling, another prominent tomb, was refused by China’s cabinet in 2000 based on the concerns of archaeologists,” said Wu Xiaocong, curator of the Han Yangling Mausoleum. “But techniques are getting better and if a tomb is going to be excavated, Qianling would likely be the first.”
Wu’s museum, in the northern outskirts of Xian, boasts state of the art preservation techniques, with the ongoing dig being carried out under climate-controlled conditions that will ensure the preservation of the finds.
Such new techniques mean that the state-protected imperial tombs may be eventually excavated, he said.
According to written records, the Qianling tomb holds the Gaozong emperor’s most precious possessions including paintings, silks, lacquer objects, ceramics, wooden objects, silver, gold and jewelled articles. He is also said to be buried in a jade coffin, which purportedly can prevent the corpse from decaying.