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A glimpse into Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

LU HANG | 2020-10-28
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The terracotta warriors unearthed from the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor  Photo: 699 PIC


The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (or the Qin Tomb) lies to the north of Mount Li and south of Wei River, covering an area of nearly 60 square kilometers. Many of its mysteries have yet to be solved despite the forty years which archaeologists have spent studying the mausoleum, including excavation and detailed research conducted by experts from the Institute of Archaeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, the archaeological team of terracotta warriors, and the other institutes.
 
Was Qin Shi Huang really buried in this tomb? 
As recorded in the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) by the Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian (c. 145–c. 87 BCE), "As soon as the First Emperor [Ying Zheng] became the king of Qin, excavations and building started at Mount Li, after he won the empire, more than seven hundred thousand conscripts from all parts of the country worked there" (trans. Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang). Based on accounts describing the construction of the mausoleum from the Shiji, many historians speculate that it took 39 years to complete the mausoleum. However, Duan Qingbo (1964–2019), chief archaeologist at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, had a different opinion: "Archaeological studies provide a timescale that is different from what Sima Qian wrote—the construction of the mausoleum might have only taken ten years. It seems that Qin Shi Huang did not order the construction of his final resting place soon after he became the king of Qin. Sima Qian's account might actually be a subtle critique of Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (r. 141–87 BCE). For the past 2,000 years, Chinese intellectuals used the example of Qin Shi Huang to satirize rulers who embarked on costly construction programs." 
 
Qin Shi Huang died in Shaqiu (in present-day Pingxiang, Hebei Province), which was far from the capital city of Xianyang. He passed away in summer and decomposition was a concern. The actual date for sealing and completing his mausoleum is inconsistent with historical texts, raising doubts as to whether Qin Shi Huang was really buried in the mausoleum. According to Duan, Qin Shi Huang was the owner of this mausoleum. A bronze bell excavated near the mausoleum had the inscription "Lishan Garden" on its bottom. "Lishan Garden" was the original name of the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang. 
 
Historical texts date the burial to almost two months after Qin Shi Huang's death. His body might have begun to decompose when transported. However, Li Shuo, a doctor from the First Affiliated Hospital of Xi'an Jiao Tong University, believed the Qin people were familiar with preservation techniques, since archaeologists found a well-preserve female corpse dated to less than a century later in the Western Han Dynasty. 
 
Has the mausoleum ever been robbed? 
"Artisans were ordered to install mechanically triggered crossbows [in the underground palace] set to shoot any intruder." This security arrangement depicted by Sima Qian makes the Qin Tomb more mysterious. 
 
There are many tales about robberies of the Qin Tomb. The most famous one is that this tomb was looted and set on fire by Xiang Yu (the leader of rebel forces that tried to overthrow the Qin Dynasty) and his troops. However, archaeologists found few signs of human damage, indicating that most of the underground palace remained intact. 
 
According to Yuan Zhongyi, former curator of the Emperor Qinshihuang's Terracotta Warriors Museum, decades of excavations of the burial mound have revealed no notable signs of digging. Although looting tunnels were found onsite, it appears that looters did not reach central regions of the underground complex. The alleged robbery by Xiang Yu has not been verified. Archaeologists discovered several signs of fire and flood damage in the pits, and the terracotta warriors also sustained many surface-level cuts. The ground within the mausoleum is littered with piles of broken bricks and tiles, charcoal ash and burnt clay. Archaeologists speculate that after Xiang Yu and his troops arrived, ground level structures within the Qin Tomb were burned, and part of the mass pits containing burial offerings discovered at that time were looted and burned. The fire caused some pits and graves of those who were sacrificed after Qin Shi Huang's death to collapse. 
 
"As is recorded in the Shiji, 'after the burial and sealing up of the treasures, the middle gate was shut, and the outer gate closed, to imprison all the artisans and laborers, so that no one came out.' Since the underground burial complex was so large and complicated, and all the artisans and laborers were buried within, Xiang Yu and his troops probably didn’t find their way into the underground palace," Yuan said. 
 
Underground world 
In 2002, Chinese archaeologists used remote-sensing technology to probe the underground burial complex. According to Duan, geophysical and geochemical exploration techniques indicate a 30-meter-high rammed-earth structure with four stair-like walls situated underneath the mound, a unique design in ancient Chinese burials. "From the distance, this may be a wooden structure with four surrounding stair-like walls consisting of nine steps each," said Duan. He believed that the structure had been completed before the emperor died. 
 
Yang Hongxun, a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at CASS, estimated that this underground structure might have a square base with four sides measuring 500 meters, covering nearly 250,000 square meters. 
 
The underground palace was built to place Qin Shi Huang's coffin and burial artifacts, located at the center of the mausoleum. The Shiji recounts that laborers "dug through three subterranean streams [an indication that the palace was deep underground] and poured molten copper for the outer coffin, and the tomb was filled with models of palaces, pavilions and officers, as well as fine vessels, precious stones and rarities." "Using hyperspectral remote sensing, we found that the underground palace is right beneath the mound," said Duan. He further speculated that the roof of the underground palace might be made of stone. 
 
Liu Zhancheng, head of the archaeological team from Emperor Qinshihuang's Terracotta Warriors Museum, believed that stone slates might be used to cover the top of the underground palace. "'The heavenly constellations were shown above,' an account from the Shiji, may be an indication that there is a ceiling painting of constellations [in the underground palace]," said Liu. The renowned Chinese archaeologist Xia Nai (1910–1985) also agreed that ‘the heavenly constellations were shown above and the regions of the earth below' depicted the ceiling of the underground palace, which was painted or engraved with the sun, the moon, and other constellations. In recent years, similar murals have been found in Han Dynasty tombs in Xi'an. Archaeologists speculate that the top of the underground palace might be decorated with murals of the Twenty-Eight Mansions (part of the Chinese constellation system, reflecting the movement of the moon through a sidereal month), while replicas of rivers and streams were made with mercury. 
 
Sima Qian wrote that "All the country's streams, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, were reproduced in mercury and by some mechanical means made to flow into a miniature ocean." In 2003, tests on the tomb mound have revealed unusually high concentrations of mercury, lending credence to at least some of the historical account. There is a large quantity of mercury in the underground palace. Duan said that putting mercury inside tombs was a tradition that predated the construction of the Qin Tomb. However, using mercury to preserve body and protect the tombs from looters appeared after the Qin era. Using mercury to represent all the country's streams might be a spiritual pursuit of Qin Shi Huang. 
Edited by REN GUANHONG