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Why Archaeologists Are Afraid to Open the Tomb of China’s First Emperor?

Terracotta army of China's First Emperor
Archaeologists and historians are afraid to open the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Credit: Robin Chen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Archaeologists are scared to open the 2,200-year-old burial place of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. They worry that it might contain dangerous booby traps.

The tomb of this ancient emperor, who reigned from 221 to 210 BC, lies in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi. It’s watched over by the famous Terracotta Army statues created to safeguard him in the life beyond.

Although certain sections of the necropolis have been extensively investigated, the tomb itself has remained unopened out of concern regarding its contents.

Sima Qian, an ancient Chinese historian, penned an account roughly a century after the emperor’s demise, which outlined the potential presence of booby traps within the tomb.

Reports cited by IFL Science say that the historical text states that craftsmen were instructed to create crossbows and arrows that were ready to fire at anyone attempting to enter the tomb.

Additionally, it mentions the use of mercury to replicate the imagery of numerous rivers, including the Yangtze and Yellow River, as well as the depiction of a vast sea with mechanisms to create a flowing effect.

While some scientists have dismissed these accounts as possibly exaggerated or fantastical, a study conducted in 2020 indicated that mercury concentrations in the vicinity of the tomb were notably higher than anticipated, raising questions about the accuracy of these ancient descriptions.

The study states, “Highly volatile mercury may have seeped through cracks that developed over time in the tomb’s structure, corroborating the accounts found in ancient chronicles that claim the tomb was never opened or looted.”

Excavations could harm the tomb of China’s Emperor

Another reason for not excavating the tomb is that it could harm the tomb, leading to the potential loss of priceless historical knowledge. At present, the only means of entering the tomb involve invasive archaeological techniques, carrying the risk of causing irreparable damage.

An illustrative case in point is the 1970s excavations of the city of Troy, led by Heinrich Schliemann, who, in his haste and lack of experience, obliterated nearly all traces of the very town he aimed to uncover.

Archaeologists are resolute in their determination to avoid repeating such rushed and destructive mistakes, reported The Jerusalem Post.

In an effort to find less invasive means of exploration, scientists have put forward ideas such as using muons, which are subatomic particles produced when cosmic rays interact with Earth’s atmosphere.

Muons essentially act like advanced X-rays, allowing researchers to look inside structures without physically disturbing them. However, most of these proposals have not gained widespread acceptance or implementation as of yet, according to The Jerusalem Post.

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