For more than two millennia, the weathered, unimposing tumulus of Qin Shihuangdi, China’s first emperor, has loomed among the cornfields and fruit trees east of Xian.
While the discovery 29 years ago of the marvelous terra cotta warriors that guard the burial site came as a complete surprise, the existence of the mound was common knowledge. Yet, to this day, the tomb of Qin (pronounced “Chin”) Shihuangdi — who united warring states and took the name “China’s First Emperor” — remains untouched by the spades of archaeologists. A conundrum wrapped in legend and rumor, the resting place of the emperor holds the promise of a treasure trove that staggers the minds of those who have studied, contemplated and dreamt of unearthing it.
“It is the greatest enigma in archaeology,” said Wang Xueli, a professor at the Shaanxi Provincial Archeological Institute who is considered one of the foremost experts on the burial site. Upon its completion, the Emperor’s earthen mound rivaled the pyramids of Egypt in scope and ambition. While the pyramids have been opened and found largely looted and empty, nobody knows exactly what Qin Shihuangdi’s sepulchre contains.
In the past 12 years, the Shaanxi provincial government, mindful of the vast potential for tourist revenue, repeatedly has sought permission from the National Cultural Relics bureau. But the answer has remained the same: China does not have the financial and technological resources for such a vast undertaking.
There are more urgent excavations to be done. This task should be left to future generations. Said an official at the bureau: “We have the responsibility to preserve the artifacts for posterity.”
“There are two parties in Shaanxi. Those who do not want to excavate, and those who do. I belong to the latter,” said Mr. Wang, even as he acknowledged that much preparatory work remains to be done before an excavation can take place.
Others, such as Zhang Yinglan, an archaeologist at a museum near Xian containing the terra cotta warriors, believe caution — and more time — is necessary before the tomb can be opened properly.
“There are many Han graves and many Tang graves, but there is only one tomb of Qin Shihuangdi. We cannot afford to make any mistakes,” Mr. Zhang said.
The mystique of Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb is closely linked to the emperor’s pivotal role in history. In 231 B.C., as the king of Qin, one of the seven major states at the time, he embarked on a remarkable series of campaigns, conquering his neighbors one by one. In 10 years, China was created.
The emperor’s political skills and ruthlessness were legendary, as were his megalomania and fear of death. Construction on his splendid mausoleum east of his capital, Xianyang, began soon after he became king at age 13. As his fortunes waxed and he subdued more kingdoms, the grave grew in scale and ambition.
At one point in the 36 years it took to construct the underground complex, more than 700,000 laborers toiled at the site. When the emperor died in 210 B.C., the finest treasures — gold, jade, precious gems, silks — from every corner of his empire accompanied him to the afterlife.
The foundations of two massive, rectangular walls encircling the tomb area have been found. During construction of the tomb, a gigantic pit measuring about 300 square yards was excavated in terraces to a depth of more than 100 feet. Archaeologists estimate the size of the subterranean palace built at the bottom of the pit to be about 400 feet by 525 feet, equal to 48 basketball courts.
After the burial vault, side chambers and passageways were built, and the pit was covered with earth and topped with the terraced mound.
According to the “Shi Ji” (“Historical Records”) of Sima Qian, a scholar from the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 25), which contains the earliest account of Qin Shihuangdi’s mausoleum, the emperor was laid to rest in a bronze casket amid a sea and rivers of mercury, which was circulated by a kind of perpetual-motion device. Other records describe the emperor being dressed in jade and gold, with pearls in his mouth, and the coffin floating on the mercury.
The vaulted ceiling is said to be covered with pearl versions of night-sky constellations and the floor covered with a miniature landscape of his empire, with models of pavilions and palaces. Entrances to the vault are booby-trapped with hair-trigger crossbows to pierce intruders with arrows.
Scientific tests have confirmed the presence of unusual amounts of mercury, up to 100 times above normal, under the tumulus. According to Mr. Wang, measurements with advanced instruments have established that the height of the main chamber is nearly 33 feet.
While Yuan Zhongyi, the honorary chief of the museum, says changes in the structure of the sediment layers indicate that the vault has caved in, Mr. Wang disagrees: “I do not believe that the main vault has collapsed.”
Another crucial issue about which scholars disagree is whether the vault has been looted.
Three years after Qin Shihuangdi was entombed, his vast empire collapsed. Construction of his mausoleum and the Great Wall, and maintenance of a huge army to guard the far-flung border regions, had taxed and impoverished the country’s peasants who, under the leadership of Xiang Yu, rose up and marched on the Qin capital. According to Sima Qian, Xianyang was burned and the tomb was looted.
“There is a 99 percent chance that Qin Shihuangdi’s grave has been looted,” said one prominent Beijing archaeologist. “A wish is a wish. Reality is reality. It is better to keep it that way.”
Mr. Yuan holds a different opinion.
“The layers of earth appear to be in order. If 300,000 soldiers had looted the tomb, everything would have been in chaos,” he said, adding that archaeologists have found evidence of two minor attempts to reach the tomb.
“The mercury is poisonous. If Xiang Yu’s soldiers had opened the tomb, they would have been poisoned, and the mercury would have evaporated. But it is still there,” Mr. Wang says.
Until the tomb is excavated, no one will know for sure.
The difficulties of such an undertaking would indeed be daunting. Nobody has even dared to calculate how much such an excavation would cost, nor how long it would take.
For starters, according to several Chinese scholars, a proper excavation would require that the whole tumulus be removed layer by layer. A way of dealing with the mercury vapors would have to be devised.
Another major problem is how to preserve the multitude of artifacts that accompanied Qin Shihuangdi in death. When the mausoleum of the Ming dynasty Emperor Wan Li was opened, for example, silk found in the tomb began deteriorating after coming in contact with air.
“I would really like to know what is in the grave. But I would like to do it without ruining the mound,” said Mr. Yuan, who was present the day peasants discovered the first terra cotta warrior 25 years ago.
As for cooperation with other countries, given Qin Shihuangdi’s status as China’s founding father, the element of national pride must be considered.
“It would be hard for us to cooperate with foreign organizations,” said Mr. Zhang. The terra cotta warriors are being excavated largely without outside help, and it seems clear that the Chinese wish to deal with the Qin Shihuangdi tomb in the same way.
NHK (the Japan Broadcasting Corporation), Japan’s main public broadcaster, has offered to sponsor a hi-tech, minimally intrusive investigation of the tomb, but the Chinese have declined the offer. The Japanese have a special interest in Qin Shihuangdi: Some scholars believe that an expedition he dispatched to Japan seeking a rare herbal remedy played an important role in the early development of Japanese civilization.
While the debate on how, when and even whether to excavate Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb rages, archaeologists in Xian continue to discover extraordinary artifacts buried in the mound’s vicinity. Discoveries in recent years include a giant bronze cauldron, terra cotta acrobats as large as the warriors, and rare, armored vests made of polished stones.
Archaeologists have also the found the graves of 300 laborers who toiled at the site. East of the mound, 17 graves with the remains of decapitated bodies have been unearthed, and scholars speculate they may be Qin Shihuangdi’s children, brutally executed by Hu Hai, the son who succeeded the First Emperor.
With the tombs of 11 emperors of the Han dynasty and 18 emperors of the Tang dynasty flung out over the fields surrounding Xian, archaeologists have their work cut out. Many scholars believe these mausoleums should be excavated first, to gather experience and expertise before going for the grand prize, and it is common to hear them say that Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb will have to wait “one or two generations” for exploration.
Nevertheless, for archaeologists who have toiled with the terra cotta warriors for 25 years, the allure of the Qin emperor’s tomb refuses to fade. “I don’t dream about it at night,” Mr. Wang said. “I dream about it during the day, when I am working.”