Monday, June 25, 2012

The most awesome tomb ever


The fabled tomb of Qin Shihuang might look like this.
(from China Cultural Heritage)
Ancient tombs and burial treasures are awesome.

Booby traps and diabolical machines are awesome.

So it goes without saying that ancient, booby-trapped tombs filled with treasure and diabolical machines are absolutely, mind-numbingly awesomely awesome!

Such is the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang (秦始皇 Qín​ Shǐ​ huáng).

In 1974, in rural Shaanxi Province, a group of farmers who were digging a well stumbled across one of the greatest archaeological finds in history.

No, it was not the double-penetration sex toy that someone threw down an 80-meter well that villagers thought was a type of rare mushroom.

It was one of the now iconic terracotta soldiers, that number in the thousands, silently guarding the tomb of Qin Shihuang, one of the most venerated figures in Chinese history.

Since that discovery, other underground chambers have been unearthed, containing terracotta versions of warriors, horses, acrobats and every other type of person who would have been part of the imperial entourage. However, the main burial chamber eluded discovery, even though it was pretty clear where it was.

Si-Ma Qian wrote the book
on the best tomb ever

The main source of knowledge about the tomb (and most other ancient Chinese history) comes from the "Records of the Grand Historian" (史记, Shǐ jì). It was written by Si-Ma Qian (司马迁 Sīmǎ Qiān), in around 100 BCE, approximately a hundred years after Qin Shihuang's death. Here is an excerpt from that momemtous tome:

Original text: 始皇初即位,穿治郦山,及并天下,天下徒送诣七十余万人,穿三泉,下铜而致椁,宫观百官奇器珍怪徙臧满之。令匠作机矢,有所穿近者辄射之。以水银为百川江河大海,机相灌输,上具天文,下具地理。以人鱼膏为烛,度不灭者久之。二世曰:"先帝后宫非有子者,出焉不宜。" 皆令从死,死者甚众。葬既已下,或言工匠为机,臧皆知之,臧重即泄。大事毕,已臧,闭中羡,下外羡门,尽闭工匠臧者,无复出者。树草木以象山。

Translation: When the First Emperor ascended the throne, the digging and preparation at Mount Li began. After he unified his empire, he sent 700,000 people to work. They dug down deep to underground springs, pouring copper to place the outer casing of the coffin.


Palaces and viewing towers housing a hundred officials were built and filled with treasures and rare artefacts. Workmen were instructed to make automatic crossbows primed to shoot at intruders. Mercury was used to create a hundred rivers and the ocean, and set to flow mechanically. Above, the heaven is depicted, below, the geographical features of the land. Candles were made of "mermaid"'s fat whose light would not extinguish for a long time.

The Second Emperor said: "It is inappropriate for the wives of the late emperor who have no sons to be free", ordered that they be put to death, and many died. After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious breach if the craftsmen who constructed the tomb and knew of its secrets were to divulge those secrets. Therefore after the funeral ceremonies had completed, the inner passages and doorways were blocked, and the exit sealed, immediately trapping the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape. Vegetations were then planted on the tomb mound such that it resembled a hill.

If you didn't catch all that, here are the bullet points:
  • The underground palace is filled with rare and strange treasures (see my post on two of them!)
  • There are traps with crossbows set to kill intruders who dare enter the tomb
  • The tomb floor is a scale model of the country, complete with geographical features, and rivers of mercury that flow via some mysterious mechanical system
  • An ancient star map is painted on the ceiling
  • Candles made from mermaid fat illuminate the necropolis (Ooo-kay)
  • The entire complex is filled with the corpses of doomed craftsmen and concubines, who will most likely re-animate and be very pissed off.

Lara Croft has wet dreams
about this tomb

Even though it was clear that the tomb was located beneath Mount Li, nobody had been able to confirm this. Then, in 2002, a team of archaeologists used remote sensing (the technology, not the "men staring at goats" kind) and ground-penetrating radar to peer into the heart of Mount Li (骊山, Lí​ shān), where the central tomb was thought to be located.

In a word, they found it. The scans showed a soccer-field sized area with walls around it, and a central pit about 15 meters deep.

The team also did tests to see if there was a higher concentration of mercury in the soil around the site, which would be the case if mercury vapor were leaching into the ground from the mechanical mercury river system. Incredibly, there was a high concentration of mercury, with higher levels to the south, suggesting the flow may have stopped and the rivers settled on the southern side of the tomb.

Another notable discovery was that there were only two "tomb passageways," (dào). Later emperors always had four at the cardinal points of the compass, but Qin Shihuang had only two on the east and west sides. These are essentially passages that lead to and from the tomb. Another mystery...

The critically endangered
Chinese "mermaid"
Now, I know you are wondering what "mermaid fat" is. Assuming for a minute that they didn't have actual mermaids back then, we have to look for other explanations. One thought is that the word translated here as mermaid (人鱼 rén​ yú), might actually refer to the Chinese Giant Salamander. This critically endangered creature is referred to as the Baby Fish (娃娃鱼 wá​wa​ yú) since it has an eerie vocalization that can sound like a human infant crying. Another theory is that whale fat was used.

In any case, the idea was probably to have a bunch of long-burning candles in order to deplete the tomb of oxygen and better preserve the contents.  

Unfortunately there are no plans to excavate the tomb, since China does not feel confident that it can extract and preserve the contents of the tomb right now. One archaeologist said it would be at least 50 more years until the tomb was explored.

Until then, we'll just have to imagine the depths of insanity that await those first explorers...

4 comments:

Mark Colacioppo said...

Ha, I need a tomb like that!

Mary Anne Huntington said...

The most awesome account of the most awesome tomb. And, a wonderful explanation of Liam's name.

Susan Moger said...

When Pie and Roy and I went to see the Terra Cotta warrior exhibit in DC there was a section with info about the mercury river and hidden tomb. Your explanation is clearer and funnier...thanks!

Benjamin said...

Thanks MAH :) The day they open this thing up I'm on a plane in a heartbeat. I'm dying to see how the crossbows are rigged up! Get it?