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Qin Shi Huang – The Secret Tomb

February 7, 2014 by Melissa Shallcross

Everybody knows the terracotta warriors. The clay statues found in an ancient tomb in China, protecting their emperor in death. The statues seem like common knowledge to most people. But did you know that the emperor’s tomb itself has never been opened?

Found in 1974 by a group of farmers digging wells into a hillside near Xi’an, China, archaeologists, scientists, and the general public were all intrigued to see what was inside the famed mausoleum of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Reportedly “city-size”, the underground groupings of caverns have only been partially excavated since the burial site’s discovery in 1974. Besides the famed rows upon rows of estimated 8,000 terracotta soldiers and horse-drawn carriages, terracotta dancers and musicians have been found in experimentally-dug pits around the burial mound. With recent technologies, archaeologists and scientists have used a type of radar sensing device that is able to analyze the ground below. A cavern with “stair-like” walls has been analyzed with this device, and it is speculated that this chamber was built for the emperor’s soul.

The expectations of everything about the tomb are largely based off of the writings of the court historian Siam Qian during the dynasty following Qin, the Han Dynasty. Descriptions of the first emperor of China’s burial chamber speak of a huge space that was highly decorated. A portion of a translation of his text states, “The tomb was filled with models of palaces, pavilions, and offices as well as fine vessels.” Further descriptions include ceilings that depict the night sky with pearls as stars lining the ceiling.

So why hasn’t this burial chamber been excavated yet? What are they waiting for? Well, for one, another description of the tomb describes a river of the toxic mercury flowing around his tomb. The ancient Chinese believed that mercury to helped bestow immortality on the dead. Emperor Qin Shi Huang even used to take mercury pills in order to lengthen his life, but people speculate that his consuming mercury could have been the reason for his fairly early death at the age of 39.

As you can imagine, opening the tomb for excavation could have a very adverse effect on both the people directly working with the tomb and the environment around it. Soil testing shows a relatively high amount of mercury content in the area around the burial site, giving a level of credibility to Siam Qian’s writings.

Another big reason the Chinese government hasn’t given the “ok” for excavating the burial chamber is the prospects of future improved excavation and preservation methods. What if they open the chamber now, and in 30 years they look back and wish the government had waited for another few years for some spectacular new device or system that wasn’t out until then. This is like King Tut’s tomb; we have so much more technology that we could have analyzed so much more today than the original researchers.

So how long will Qin Shi Huang’s burial chamber be a lost treasure of history to us? What do you think; should curiosity overcome potential science and quench our thirst for the mysteries of the emperor’s tomb, or is patience for future technologies a virtue that will prevail?


You can read more on Qin Shi Huang’s tomb at the sources for the previous information here¬†and here.


  1. Andrew Strohmetz says:

    It does seem that the Chinese government is in a bit of a dilemma in that we can discover so much more if we wait. It is going to be very interesting to see how this pans out within the coming years.

  2. Amanda Reese says:

    I had no idea that they never opened the actual tomb, that’s incredible. I’d be very interested to know what’s inside, but I’m also not terribly familiar with the technology that one would use to safely open and examine it. I suppose time will tell.

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