Despite the ongoing archeological work the Chinese city of Xi’an, world famous for its Terracotta Army – the collection of thousands of figures of warriors, chariots and horses arranged in battle formation – the main burial chamber of the Emperor remains undiscovered.
The Emperor did not provide any clue to its location and, guided by his unbridled fear of death and the afterlife, he set traps and false leads. However, some researchers claim to have a fairly accurate idea of the exact place because of the presence of heavy amounts of mercury thought to have been used to represent rivers in a model of the empire. New technology also allows remote probing for monuments and objects still deeply protected by soil cover. “We will see what news Xi'an has to offer in the coming years,” says Chen Xiang.
One unspoken reason to leave the tomb buried is to protect it. “During the past few years, things have changed rapidly in China,” says Xiang. “There are large numbers of local tourists now and a number of attractions had been spoilt by commercial development. Xi’an is one place that has been properly protected, with visitors not allowed near the Terracotta Warriors or the Horses. There are still a lot of hidden treasures, such as the tombs of the Emperors, waiting to be excavated but, without appropriate and modern technology, they are safer left alone. China has, first of all, to tackle its pollution problems because bringing out such treasures now would destroy them. It’s a pity that we might not be able to see them during our lifetime but we have to wait until the time is right.”
Dr Marcos Martinón-Torres is Professor of Archaeological Science at University College London (UCL). He and his colleagues work on a joint project between UCL Institute of Archaeology and the Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang's Mausoleum in Xi'an. "It is extraordinary to be able to see something made over 2,000 years ago that was not meant to be seen," he says. "It is unlikely that anyone, including the Emperor, saw it the way we see it today. The warriors were buried just below ground level and covered with a flat roof, just above the highest lances. They were covered from back to front as they were put in place, so no one had a sight of the entire army."
The team's study of the production process of the weapons shows that they were ready for use, with no efforts or resources spared. "Each is sharpened and is a real, lethal weapon," he says. "Then it was buried, so it was not made simply to impress, it was made for use. Historical texts tell us how ruthless the Emperor was and the Army reflects the military aspect of his rule. No doubt he felt he needed it to protect him in the afterlife from those seeking revenge.
The logistical effort is amazing, to produce something so sophisticated and beautiful and yet so large in scale. We can compare the production process of the weapons to the cellular process used by Toyota cars and we are studying if the whole figures were made in a similar way, using 3D digital models. What's interesting is that so far they seem to be totally individualized. So the weapons are perfectly standardized, but the warriors are all individuals, just as you would expect in real life.
“This site has continually surprised the research community," he says. "As to what we will find next, your guess is as good as mine. All we know is that what we discover will continue to amaze us.”