There are some places in this world that are ancient, mysterious, and forbidden, closed off from the world for centuries or even millennia, and holding within them enigmas that we have yet to see. Many such locales come in the form of ancient tombs, sealed and buried since time unremembered, often with no intention of them ever being opened. There has been much news lately about the now famous black sarcophagus of Alexandria, but this is far from the only such place in the world, and there are numerous forgotten, unopened, unexplored tombs out there every bit as mysterious and much grander in scale. One of the largest tombs ever crafted by humankind lies in China, an ancient subterranean city possessing a vast unopened underground mausoleum which could hold enormous riches, incredible artifacts, deadly traps, and perhaps even a curse.
The story of one of the largest, most historically important, and indeed most mysterious tombs in Chinese history begins way back in 260 BC, when China was a place torn by civil war raged for centuries between no fewer than six different major feudal kingdoms, all of whom sought to be the one true ruler of the land. Rising up amongst these warring factions was the powerful state of Qin, which was briefly under control of a King Zhuangxiang, who died after 3 years on the throne to leave his kingdom to his first son, Ying Zheng, who ascended the throne in 246 BC at the tender age of 13.
Despite his young age, he proved to be a bold and fearless leader, fiercely fighting and winning campaign after campaign to dominate the region and defeat all other warring states, going on to manage something no one else had, the unification of China, so creating the first Empire of China in 221 BC and making Ying Zheng the first Chinese emperor. Under his rule his empire saw great strides in the sciences and in the development of roads, infrastructure, and notably the Great Wall of China, all while dodging numerous assassination attempts and grabs for power. It seems that this certainly went to the young ruler’s head, as he would go on to proclaim that he was fated to rule, renaming himself “Qin Shi Huang,” loosely “The Son of Heaven,” and declaring himself a veritable god, imbued with divine power and who would rule forever from the center of the universe.
This was a bold claim to make, and Qin Shi Huang became obsessed with the idea of immortality and making sure that he would live forever as he had said. To this effect, he issued an Imperial order for a search for an elixir of life, and forced scholars, alchemists, and magicians to work around the clock to somehow concoct a way to grant everlasting life. Various mysterious herbs and potions purportedly showed promise, but ultimately did little good, and Qin Shi Huang took to routinely drinking mercury, which he believed slowed the aging process. Realizing that his search for immortality was going nowhere, Qin Shi Huang also stepped up construction on a grand, opulent mausoleum that had been worked on since his first ascension to power, designed to resemble the capital of Qin, Xianyang, and to keep him comfortable and in power even in the afterlife.
He envisioned this sprawling tomb as a whole city unto itself, complete with its own army of warriors and everything he would ever need to rule forever, and it is said that he brought in 700,000 laborers and convicts to work on the vast structure. It indeed was an impressive and ambitious project, designed to be a full, working microcosm of the empire, and by the time it was finished, which would take 38 years and unfortunately not be completed until several years after his death, it was the most expansive tomb the world had ever seen.
According to records from Han dynasty historian, Sima Qian, included in the tomb were palaces and scenic towers, countless relics and priceless artifacts, streets and roads, and a vast ceiling painstakingly painted and inlaid with the stars and constellations of the heavens. Most bizarrely, there were also allegedly two rivers of mercury erected to flow through the mausoleum, meant to symbolize the great Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers and which were supposedly manipulated through wondrous mechanical devices to flow into the sea. Sima Qian would say of this place in his Records of the Grand Historian:
When the First Emperor first came to the throne, the digging and preparation work began at Mount Li. Later, when he had unified his empire, 700,000 men were sent there from all over his empire. They dug through three layers of groundwater, and poured in bronze for the outer coffin. Palaces and scenic towers for a hundred officials were constructed, and the tomb was filled with rare artifacts and wonderful treasure. Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows primed to shoot at anyone who enters the tomb. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above were representation of the heavenly constellations, below, the features of the land. Candles were made from fat of “man-fish”, which is calculated to burn and not extinguish for a long time.
There are also bronze cranes, swan and ducks with groups of musicians, bronze horses with full-sized chariots, numerous acrobats and other entertainers fashioned from terracotta, fully operational horse stables tended by terracotta caretakers, and even terracotta government officials. Most well-known and perhaps the most impressive of all was a full army of over 8000 life-sized terracotta warriors, with every single one painstakingly carved with incredibly intricate detail. Such is the detail that each warrior even has a different face, leading to speculation that each and every one of them may have been based on a real person. In addition to all of this, the entire complex consisted of an inner and outer city divided by walls, held at least 18 courtyard houses and a palace, and the whole thing in total measured a staggering 38 square miles (98 square kilometers) in area. All of this was reportedly loaded with treasure and set up with sophisticated traps designed to swiftly kill any trespassers, although what these entail remains a mystery.
Ultimately, Qin Shi Huang could not cheat death, and he died in 210 BC at the age of 49, ironically from drinking the very mercury that he thought would keep him young, and an enormous funeral service was held. Upon the Emperor’s actual burial chamber, atop his thick bronze coffin, was supposedly built a hill which was planted with vegetation, and to keep the late Emperor company in the afterlife many of his concubines were killed and interred here as well. Many of the craftsmen were also callously locked away into the tomb complex when it was sealed, in order to make sure that none of the secrets of the complex or its inner workings would ever be revealed to the outside world. All of this was sealed shut, gated, and buried, and it would then disappear into the mists of time to lie forgotten for millennia.
It was not until March of 1974 that the first hints of this vast complex would be uncovered, when a local man named Yang Zhifa was out digging a well with his five brothers in Lintong county, at the village of Xiyang. As they were digging they came across terracotta fragments and bricks at a depth of around 6 feet, along with earthenware and bronze arrowheads. When archeologists arrived on the scene in May of that year they began excavations, which quickly started to uncover the mysterious terracotta army, and as the dig went on more and more of the complex was uncovered, with baffling new surprises popping up all of the time, and the excavation and nonstop discoveries have not stopped in the decades since, with the majority of this place still unexplored and unexcavated. Indeed, nothing like it has ever been seen before, and the necropolis of First Emperor Qin Shi Huang has gone on to become one of the most important archeological discoveries ever made.
As recently as 2012, one of the most striking and exciting discoveries was made when a massive Imperial Palace measuring 249 feet high (76-meters) and covering an area of 6,003,490 cubic feet (170,000 cubic meters) was discovered around 20-50 meters below the surface, holding an earthen pyramid at its center believed to be the tomb containing the actual bodies of the emperor and his concubines. This mega tomb has only been explored using 3-D imaging and ground penetrating radar, but as of yet it remains sealed down there in the bowels of the earth and unopened, inciting endless debate as to whether to open it and what treasures lie within it. As far as we know, no human eyes have seen this place in thousands of years, although it is unknown if has ever been looted in the past.
There are many reasons that no one has tried to penetrate into this massive palace tomb. One is that we just don’t have the technology to conduct such a major archeological undertaking without irreparably damaging what lies within. Because it is so deep, to dig into there would be an invasive process, and there is simply no way to get into the chamber without seriously damaging the upper layer in order to get to the palace below it, as well as potentially causing landslides that could damage other areas of the tomb and the terracotta warriors.
There is also the fact that we lack the technology to preserve some of the irreplaceable cultural relics that might lie within the palace, and this has already been seen with damage to the terracotta figures caused by being exposed to the air and sunlight. Also, considering the vast size of the mausoleum it is all also an incredibly expensive proposition that could take several decades to carry out. In essence, to excavate such a vast tomb on such a sheer scale would be a prohibitively expensive, scarring and damaging procedure that could ultimately destroy this piece of history.
More mysterious is that we have no idea what sorts of dangers lie in wait down there in the dark. The written accounts speak of enormous rivers of mercury, and detection equipment has indeed picked up anomalously and dangerously high levels of mercury at the site, meaning that to open the complex could put many at risk of poisoning and also cause serious environmental pollution. There could also be potentially deadly bacteria living down there, and of course there are the traps. It is known that the burial palace was armed with intricate traps the nature of which we don’t have a clue. We also have no clue as to whether such traps would still be operational after millennia or not, so delving down into this subterranean realm could be a deadly proposition indeed. More paranormal-minded people have even suggested that the emperor had a curse placed over his burial chamber, although if it works as well as his immortality elixirs did then we’re probably safe on that front.
The thing is, that tomb is seen as potentially holding incredible historical artifacts, vast treasures, and priceless cultural relics, to the point that many archeologists are fully prepared to risk the hurdles and potential dangers involved with getting to it. It could be the most important archeological find of the 20th century, or it may contain nothing but a looted chamber filled with skeletons and centuries of dust. There could be anything in there, we don’t know, and some think we need to find out. Others believe that it is best left alone, down there in that opulent city lair of the afterlife down in the depths of the earth just as the Emperor Qin Shi Huang originally intended, that we should not violate it and risk irrevocably damaging this ancient inner sanctum.
The debate rages, but for now that palace tomb remains quiet, free of the droves of tourists that flock through nearby to view the terracotta soldiers, and indeed free from human eyes altogether, perhaps to remain that way forever. That tomb lies there in the dark, still and silent as it has for millennia, perhaps with traps ready and poised to spring, flowing rivers of lethal mercury snaking around it and its many treasures. What lies there in the gloom of that massive ancient burial chamber? Does it hold cultural and literal riches beyond our wildest dreams? Does it carry within it the promise of learning more about that era and its people? Does it hold danger and death, traps, poison, and ancient curses? No one knows, and we won’t until it is finally opened.