The army of terracotta warriors in Xi’an, China is by far one of the most well-known of archaeological sites in the world. This amazing thousands-strong army is testament to the greatness and glory of the man known as China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. But even though the statues are being excavated, the one most important part of the site still remains a mystery. Qin Shi Huang’s tomb has yet to be opened or explored in any way.
The main problem with the lack of activity on the tomb is that the government of China and scientists alike feel that the technology just isn’t ready for such an undertaking. The risk of losing valuable archaeological evidence is too great just to satisfy the curiosity of historians. If tales are to be believed, the tomb contains a scale model of the emperor’s capital, complete with a river made of mercury and pearls embedded in the ceiling to represent the night sky.
Another problem with potential excavation comes in the form of said mercury. Testing has shown that the tales are likely true to some extent, as very high levels of mercury have been detected it the soil. This mercury can be quite dangerous if the proper precautions aren’t taken. And so the tomb sits, more than 35 years unopened with no likely exploration to be made in the near future.
When the technology does arrive, however, a great many answers will come with the tomb’s opening. There is the question of whether the tales of the opulence of the tomb are correct, as well as questions regarding the intactness of the tomb. Though it looks to be unlikely, there is always the chance that grave robbers struck the tomb sometime in the past. The terracotta warrior site is known to have been pillaged and set on fire for political reasons, and it is possible that something similar happened to the tomb.
The best likely solution to the problem will be to conduct some sort of remote survey of the interior using emerging micro-robotic technology. Similar techniques are being used in other sites. Still, how the interior of the tomb would react when exposed to modern-day air, even just a small bit of it, remains a gamble.
As of now, the Tomb of Qin must remain locked away. Hopefully, sometime in the near future (and with any luck, in my lifetime) the necessary precautions can be taken to both answer these important historic question as well as keep the tomb’s contents preserved for future generations.