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Excavation of tomb ruled out
By Ma Lie (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-02-22 05:57

XI'AN: With its tales of buried treasure and the elixir of youth, the recent movie "Myth" has heightened interest in the mystical Mausoleum of Qinshihuang (259-210 BC).

Starring Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan as an archaeologist, the film focuses on what could be hidden within the tomb, which was built more than 2,000 years ago.

But excavation experts have maintained the site will keep its secrets for a little longer yet.

Though a number of riddles about the ancient mausoleum have been handed down over the centuries, archaeologists are still reluctant to decipher them by excavating the tomb.

"It is the best choice to keep the ancient tomb untouched, because of the complex conditions inside," said Duan Qingbo, archaeologist and researcher in the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute.

Duan, who is also the head of the archaeological team working on the ancient mausoleum, told China Daily that though some historical records about the tomb have proved to be true, the latest findings differ from older accounts.

After careful geological prospecting with advanced remote sensing technology over the past five years, Chinese archaeologists found that there are symmetrical stairways and wood-like structures inside the tomb, which have never been described in any records before.

"It is not the proper time to open the tomb at the moment, since so many things still remain unknown," Duan said.

Duan's reluctance to open the ancient tomb is shared by other Chinese officials and archaeologists. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage also does not advocate the excavation of such ancient tombs at present.

In accordance with the Protection Law of Cultural Heritage of People's Republic of China, excavation on such ancient sites is only allowed when they are threatened by natural disasters or robberies, or meet with the requirement of national key projects.

"An improper excavation will harm the cultural relics inside the tomb," Zhang Bai, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said at the 15th Assembly of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) held in Xi'an in last October.

"These cultural relics have been buried for more than 2,000 years in the grave and have achieved a state of equilibrium. If they are excavated improperly and have no good technology for protection, they will quickly turn bad when they are exposed to the sunlight, oxygen and other things outside the tomb, and the situation could grow out of control," Zhang said.

Zhang revealed that pieces of beautiful white ivory unearthed from an ancient tomb in southern China turned dark and powdery within 2 hours of being unearthed.

The Mausoleum of Qinshihuang, emperor of China's first feudal Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), is located in the Lintong District of Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, and is one of China's hottest tourism spots, attracting millions of visitors from both home and abroad.

According to historical records, the mausoleum was built by more than 720,000 people during 38 years, and the area of the inner part of the tomb is about 2.13 square kilometres.

With pits that accompany the tomb, the total area of the cemetery reaches 60 square kilometres.

In the emperor's underground palace, it is said mercury was used to simulate the rivers and streams in his territory, and diamonds and pearls were used to replicate the sun, the moon and other stars.

Historical records say many traps were set to prevent it being broken into.

"We found by a survey that the mercury density in Qinshihuang's cemetery area is exceptionally higher than that in the area on the periphery, and have confirmed that the mercury is coming from the mausoleum," Duan said.

And archaeologists also discovered that the emperor's tomb was built with a very effective drainage system, which stopped ground water entering into the mausoleum. The system is similar to that used in modern constructions.

"The cultural relics are well protected with the conditions provided by the tomb's builders and improper excavation would mean destruction," Duan said.

Michael Petzet, president of ICOMOS, considers that keeping Qin's mausoleum untouched is the best way to protect the relics, and also to respect the dead.

"Let Qinshihuang and his underground palace continue their deep sleep," Petzet said at the 15th General Assembly of ICOMOS held in Xi'an.

In March 1974, some terracotta warriors and horses were unearthed near Qinshihuang's tomb by accident and the subsequent archaeological excavation found three pits containing thousands of life-size terracotta warriors and horses as well as a large number of rare relics.

Now the Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum receives millions of visitors annually.

In the early 1990s, the local government applied to the central government, without success, for approval to open Qinshihuang's tomb.

(China Daily 02/22/2006 page3)

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