Category Archives: CHINA

Unexpected Origins of Mysterious Mummies Buried in Boats in a Chinese Desert

Unexpected Origins of Mysterious Mummies Buried in Boats in a Chinese Desert

Unexpected Origins of Mysterious Mummies Buried in Boats in a Chinese Desert

In 1990, hundreds of mummified bodies were found buried in boats in an inhospitable desert area in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China. Known as the Tarim Basin mummies they have now been genetically examined and scientists have narrowed down the origins of the mysterious mummies. The results are quite surprising.

The mummies’ bodies and clothing are strikingly intact despite being up to 4,000 years old, having been discovered in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang.

Their facial features and hair color are visible, having been naturally preserved by the dry desert air.

The mummies were discovered buried in boat-shaped coffins which were covered with cow hides. Beside them were signs of a farming society: food items like wheat, barley, and cheese, as well as livestock like sheep, goats, and cattle.

They had the appearance of strangers from a foreign land because they were tall, had wool felt hats and leather booties on, and some of them had fair hair.

However, the genomes of 13 remarkably preserved 4,000-year-old mummies weren’t migrants who brought technology from the West, as previously supposed. A study of the mummies’ DNA finds that they were locals with deep roots in the area.

In a study in the Nature Journal, researchers analyzed the genetic data gathered from mummies. They date back to 2,100 to 1,700 BCE and have revealed where the people came from.

They appear to be relics of an ancient population that disappeared in Eurasia after the last ice age—one that was ancestral to Indigenous peoples living in Siberia and the Americas today.

A naturally mummified Bronze Age woman, who was buried in the Tarim Basin.

Individuals 400 kilometers apart at opposite ends of the Tarim Basin had DNA that was as similar as siblings.

Even though the mummies were locals who had not intermarried with the migrant herders in nearby mountain valleys, they were not culturally isolated. By 4000 years ago, they had already embraced new ideas and cultures: they wore woven woolen clothing, constructed irrigation systems, grew nonnative wheat and millet, herded sheep and goats, and milked cattle to make cheese.

Although previous work has shown that the mummies lived on the shores of an oasis in the desert, it’s still unclear why they were buried in boats covered in cattle hides with oars at their heads – a rare practice not found anywhere else in the region and perhaps best associated with the Vikings.

According to the study, the group had been in the area for some time and had a distinct local ancestry, which refuted theories that they were herders from the southern Russian Black Sea region, Central Asians, or early farmers on the Iranian Plateau.

Christina Warinner, a study author, professor of Anthropology at Harvard University, and research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said in a statement: “The mummies have long fascinated scientists and the public alike since their original discovery. Beyond being extraordinarily preserved, they were found in a highly unusual context, and they exhibit diverse and far-flung cultural elements.”

Researchers also said it was possible for a population to be genetically isolated but also be culturally cosmopolitan.

In addition to examining genomes sequenced from the remains of five individuals from the Dzungarian Basin further north in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, the researchers also examined genetic data from the oldest mummies from the Tarim Basin, which date from 3,700 to 4,100 years old.

Dating back between 4,800 and 5,000 years ago, they are the oldest human remains found in the region.

Ancient treasures found in massive tomb of wealthy family in China

Ancient treasures found in massive tomb of wealthy family in China

Archaeologists exploring a small village in China announced recently that they discovered three tombs filled with ancient treasures, including gold ornaments, a jade sword and ivory lacquerware.

The tombs are actually a “high-level family cemetery” from the Wei and Jin dynasties, a period of time from 220 A.D. to 589 A.D., experts said.

These are the first such tombs found in the Shunzhuang Village, in China’s Eastern Mengjin district, according to a news release about the discovery.

The tombs are large, and one was determined to be the second-largest tomb from this time period found in the area, second only to the imperial mausoleum in Luoyang, a nearby city. That tomb has multiple chambers and passages, while the other two tombs are smaller in size.

The architecture of the tombs is still being studied by archaeologists.

Ancient treasures found in massive tomb of wealthy family in China
The excavated tomb.

The three tombs have been robbed “many times,” according to the news release, but still contained treasures including gold ornaments, pottery, coins and more.

There were over 200 artifacts found overall, according to the news release, including ivory lacquerware that had never been seen before.

Those items are believed to be high-end crafts or practical items, and are “symbols of status” showing the wealth and power of the family in the tomb.

Archaeologists also found bone earrings, which are “relatively rare,” with phoenix and bird patterns, and jade objects including a sword and belt hook. Those jade items are believed to be family heirlooms.

One of the pieces of ivory lacquerware

Using the dates of these artifacts and others found in the tombs, archaeologists were able to determine when in the dynasty the tombs were built. The largest tomb was likely built first.

Research in the area will continue, according to the news release. There was no information found about the tomb owners or those buried there, so archaeologists said they will try to determine who might have owned the cemetery and unveil “more historical mysteries.”

One of the ancient treasures found in the tomb.

2,000-year-old ‘celestial calendar’ discovered in ancient Chinese tomb

2,000-year-old ‘celestial calendar’ discovered in ancient Chinese tomb

2,000-year-old 'celestial calendar' discovered in ancient Chinese tomb
Wooden slips marked with Chinese characters that relate to the traditional Tiangan Dizhi astronomical calendar.

Archaeologists in China have unearthed a mysterious set of rectangular wooden pieces linked to an ancient astronomical calendar. The artifacts were discovered inside an exceptionally well-preserved 2,000-year-old tomb in the southwest of the country.

Each of the 23 wooden slips is about an inch (2.5 centimeters) wide and 4 inches (10 cm) long and displays a Chinese character related to the Tiangan Dizhi, or “Ten Heavenly Stems and 12 Earthly Branches” — a traditional Chinese astronomical calendar established during the Shang dynasty, which ruled from about 1600 B.C. to about 1045 B.C.

Archaeologists think one of the slips may have represented whatever was the current year and that the other 22 slips could have been used to specify any particular year in the ancient calendar, according to a translation of a story on the China News website, an agency run by the Chinese government.

A well-preserved tomb, dated to about 2200 years ago, unearthed in the Wulong district of China’s Chongqing municipality.

Circular perforations at the edges of each slip suggest they were once tied together.

However, it’s not yet clear how the set of calendrical wooden slips would have functioned, an expert told Live Science.

This is the first time such objects have been found in an ancient tomb, although the practice of writing characters on strips of wood or bamboo was common in China before the invention of paper.

Golden age

The wooden slips and many other artifacts were discovered earlier this year in a tomb in the Wulong district, about 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) southwest of Beijing, archaeologists from the Chongqing municipal government told the Global Times — which is also run by the Chinese government.

The tomb contains a written list of all the burial items, which also states that it was built in 193 B.C. That places the tomb during the time of the Western Han dynasty, which ruled much of China from 206 B.C. to A.D. 9; it was followed by the Eastern Han dynasty, which ruled until A.D. 220, and together they are considered a “golden age” when many Chinese traditions were established.

Archaeologists and university students working at an archaeological site in the Wulong district.

Archaeologist Wang Meng said the tomb was the best-preserved wooden-chamber tomb ever found in China’s southwest.

Project leader Huang Wei told the Global Times that the tomb also contained more than 600 cultural artifacts, including lacquerware bowls, boxes, jars and plates. It also held bamboo utensils and musical pipes, spears and cooking tripods made from copper, wooden figurines, as well as pottery and bronze objects.

As well as the mysterious wooden slips, more than 600 cultural artifacts were found inside the tomb and indicate that a high-status person had been buried there.
The hundreds of artifacts buried in the tomb include ornate objects of pottery, copper, bronze, wood, bamboo, and lacquerware, such as this plate.
Archaeologists said the tomb was undisturbed and most of the artifacts are undamaged, although they needed cleaning after so long underground.

Calendar mystery

Astronomer Ed Krupp, the director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and author of “Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations” (Dover, 2003), who was not involved in the Wulong discovery,  told Live Science that while the Tiangan Dizhi calendar is mainstream — it is used in Chinese astrology, for example — the wooden slips found in the Wulong tomb were unusual.

Archaeologists say the newly discovered tomb in Wulong district Is the best preserved from this period in the southwest of China.
As well as recovering the artifacts buried in the ancient tomb, archaeologists have carefully mapped and photographed its interior.

“The wooden slips with calendric notations are significant as the first and only known example of that kind of inscription on that kind of object,” he said in an email.

But it doesn’t appear that the set of wooden slips could have functioned as a calendar; instead, it seems they could have been used to reference any year of the 60-year calendrical cycle, he said.

“If so, they are not ‘books,’ but objects used to highlight a particular year,” he said. He noted the similarity to a practice followed at a Taoist temple in the Chinese city of Suzhou, where each year in the cycle is represented by a statue that is specially marked when it becomes current.

Krupp said that the finds from the Wulong tomb showed that a person of high status had been buried there. “The artifacts interred with the deceased are numerous and very, very fine,” he said. “This is rich, expensive material.”

Earliest Multiplication Formulas Discovered in a 2,300-Year-Old Chinese Tomb

Earliest Multiplication Formulas Discovered in a 2,300-Year-Old Chinese Tomb

Archaeologists excavating a tomb in the Qinjiazui archaeological site of Jingzhou City, Hubei Province, China, have found the earliest multiplication formulas on record.

The earliest multiplication formulas on record have been discovered on bamboo slips from the Warring States period (475BC-221BC), pushing the history of these formulas back by nearly a century, China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) announced at a press conference.

The formula, which dates back to the 4th century BC during the Warring State Period (475-221 BC), precedes another piece discovered in central Hunan Province by approximately a century, said Yang Kaiyong, a research fellow at the Jingzhou Museum.

The burial – known simply as M1093 – probably dates back to the reign of either King Chu Xuan or King Chu Wei, from 369 to 329 BCE.

Bamboo slips were the most popular writing material in the period before paper became widespread.

These slips, which are typically a centimeter or two wide and a few inches long, have been discovered in large numbers at the Qinjiazui site. Of all the tombs identified so far, M1093 contains the highest number of these slips.

Thousands of bamboo slips holding over 30,000 characters ranging from mathematics, literature, and animal husbandry to medicines have been discovered in the tomb.

Earliest Multiplication Formulas Discovered in a 2,300-Year-Old Chinese Tomb
An archaeologist sorts out bamboo slips at a tomb in the city of Jingzhou, in central China’s Hubei Province.

Scientists have used infrared scanning to reveal the words on the slip: “Five times seven is thirty plus five, four times seven is twenty plus eight, three times seven is twenty plus one.”

On one of the strips, researchers found multiplication formulas as well as the oldest known example of an algebraic table known as Jiujiushu.

According to the researchers: “This significant discovery offers invaluable new resources for studying the history, culture, and ideologies prevalent during the pre-Qin period.”

The Warring States period lasted from 475 to 221 BCE and ended when the Qin state overcame its six adversaries. This resulted in the unification of the Chinese empire for the first time and the establishment of the Qin dynasty.

Organic Material Blend Said to Strengthen China’s Great Wall

Organic Material Blend Said to Strengthen China’s Great Wall

A close-up image of “biocrusts” growing on the Great Wall of China. (Image credit: Bo Xiao)

Large swaths of the Great Wall of China are held together thanks to “biocrusts,” thin layers of organic materials that have helped protect the architectural marvel from erosion.

Scientists made the discovery while analyzing segments of the Great Wall of China, which spans more than 13,000 miles (21,000 kilometers) and was built over the course of many centuries, beginning in 221 B.C., as a way to protect the country’s empires from the outside world.

During construction, ancient workers often used rammed earth, which included a mix of organic materials like soil and gravel that are compacted together, to build the massive wall.

While these materials may be more susceptible to erosion than other materials, such as solid stones, they often help promote the growth of “biocrusts.” 

Organic Material Blend Said to Strengthen China’s Great Wall
Sections of the Great Wall of China are strengthened due to being built with organic materials. (Image credit: Bo Xiao)

This living stucco is made up of cyanobacteria (microorganisms that are capable of photosynthesis), mosses and lichens that help reinforce the construction, especially in arid and semi-arid parts of the country, according to a study published Friday (Dec. 8) in the journal Science Advances

“Ancient builders knew which materials could make the structure more stable,” study co-author Bo Xiao, a professor of soil science in the College of Land Science and Technology at China Agricultural University in Beijing, told Live Science in an email. 

“To enhance the mechanical strength, the rammed earth of the wall was always constructed with clay, sand and other adhesive[s] like lime by the original builders,” he said. These ingredients provide fertile ground for the organisms that build “biocrusts.” 

To test the strength and integrity of the Great Wall, researchers collected samples at eight different sections built between 1368 B.C. and 1644 B.C. during the Ming Dynasty.

They found that 67% of the samples contained “biocrusts,” which Xiao called “ecosystem engineers.” Using portable mechanical instruments, both on site and back at the laboratory, they measured the samples’ mechanical strength and soil stability and compared that data to wall segments containing only bare rammed earth, according to a statement.

They found that the “biocrust” samples were sometimes three times stronger than the plain rammed earth samples. Samples containing moss were particularly hearty, according to the study.

This is because the cyanobacteria and other life forms within the biocrust secreted substances, such as polymers, that would “tightly bind” together with the rammed earth particles, helping to “strengthen their structural stability” by creating what was essentially cement, Xiao said.

“These cementitious substances, biological filaments and soil aggregates within the biocrust layer finally form a cohesive network with strong mechanical strength and stability against external erosion,” Xiao said.

Meet ‘Dragon Man,’ the latest addition to the human family tree

Meet ‘Dragon Man,’ the latest addition to the human family tree

This illustration shows what Homo longi — dragon man — may have looked like.

A cranium hidden at the bottom of a well in northeastern China for more than 80 years may belong to a new species of early human that researchers have called “dragon man.”

The exciting discovery is the latest addition to a human family tree that is rapidly growing and shifting, thanks to new fossil finds and analysis of ancient DNA preserved in teeth, bones and cave dirt.

The well-preserved skullcap, found in the Chinese city of Harbin, is between 138,000 and 309,000 years old, according to geochemical analysis, and it combines primitive features, such as a broad nose and low brow and braincase, with those that are more similar to Homo sapiens, including flat and delicate cheekbones.

The ancient hominin – which researchers said was “probably” a 50-year-old man – would have had an “extremely wide” face, deep eyes with large eye sockets, big teeth and a brain similar in size to modern humans.

Three papers detailing the find were published in the journal The Innovation on Friday.

“The Harbin skull is the most important fossil I’ve seen in 50 years. It shows how important East Asia and China is in telling the human story,” said Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at The Natural History Museum in London and coauthor of the research.

Researchers named the new hominin Homo longi, which is derived from Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River, the province where the cranium was found. The team plans to see if it’s possible to extract ancient proteins or DNA from the cranium, which included one tooth, and will begin a more detailed study of the skull’s interior, looking at sinuses and both ear and brain shape, using CT scans.

Meet ‘Dragon Man,’ the latest addition to the human family tree
Dragon man’s large size could be an adaptation to the harsh environment in which he likely lived, researchers said.

We are family

It’s easy to think of Homo sapiens as unique, but there was a time when we weren’t the only humans on the block. In the millennia since Homo sapiens first emerged in Africa about 300,000 years ago, we have shared the planet with Neanderthals, the enigmatic Denisovans, the “hobbit” Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonensis and Homo naledi, as well as several other ancient hominins. We had sex with some of them and produced babies. Some of these ancestors are well represented in the fossil record, but most of what we know about Denisovans comes from genetic information in our DNA. The story of human evolution is changing all the time in what is a particularly exciting period for paleoanthropology, Stringer said.

The announcement of dragon man’s discovery comes a day after a different group researchers published a paper in the journal Science on fossils found in Israel, which they said also could represent another new type of early human. The jaw bone and skull fragment suggested a group of people lived in the Middle East 120,000 to 420,000 years ago with anatomical features more primitive than early modern humans and Neanderthals.

While the team of researchers stopped short of calling the group a new hominin species based on the fossil fragments they studied, they said the fossils resembled pre-Neanderthal human populations in Europe and challenged the view that Neanderthals originated there.

“This is a complicated story, but what we are learning is that the interactions between different human species in the past were much more convoluted than we had previously appreciated,” Rolf Quam, a professor of anthropology at Binghamton University and a coauthor of the study on the Israeli fossils, said in a news release

Stringer, who was not involved in the Science research, said the fossils were less complete than the Harbin skull, but it was definitely plausible that different types of humans co-existed in the Levant, which was a geographical crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe that today includes Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Jordan and other countries in the Middle East.

Two fossils found in Israel challenge the idea that Neanderthals originated in Europe.

Concealed treasure

The Harbin cranium was discovered in 1933 by an anonymous Chinese man when a bridge was built over the Songhua River in Harbin, according to one of the studies in The Innovation. At the time, that part of China was under Japanese occupation, and the man who found it took it home and stored it at the bottom of a well for safekeeping.

“Instead of passing the cranium to his Japanese boss, he buried it in an abandoned well, a traditional Chinese method of concealing treasures,” according to the study.

After the war, the man returned to farming during a tumultuous time in Chinese history and never re-excavated his treasure. The skull remained unknown to science for decades, surviving the Japanese invasion, civil war, the Cultural Revolution and, more recently, rampant commercial fossil trading in China, the researchers said.

The third generation of the man’s family only learned about his secret discovery before his death and recovered the fossil from the well in 2018. Qiang Ji, one of the authors of the research, heard about the skull and convinced the family to donate it to the Geoscience Museum of Hebei GEO University.

‘Sister lineage’

The so-called dragon man likely belonged to a lineage that may be our closest relatives, even more closely related to us than Neanderthals, the study found. His large size and where the fossil was found, in one of China’s coldest places, could mean the species had adapted to harsh environments.

Dragon man had a large brain, deep set eyes, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth and oversize teeth.

“We are human beings. It is always a fascinating question about where we were from and how we evolved,” said coauthor Xijun Ni, a research professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the vice director of the Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins.

“We found our long-lost sister lineage.”

The study suggested that other puzzling Chinese fossils that paleoanthropologists have found hard to classify – such as those found in Dali in Yunnan in southwestern China and a jawbone from the Tibetan plateau, thought by some to be Denisovan – could belong to the Homo longi species.

Stringer said also it was definitely plausible that dragon man could be a representative of Denisovans, a little-known and enigmatic human population that hasn’t yet been officially classified as a hominin species according to taxonomic rules.

They are named after a Siberian cave where the only definitive Denisovan bone fragments have been found, but genetic evidence from modern human DNA suggests they once lived throughout Asia.

Denisovans is a general name, Stringer said, and they haven’t officially been recognized as a new species – in part because the five Denisovan fossils that exist are so tiny they don’t fulfill the requirements for a “designated type specimen” that would make it a name-bearing representative.

Denisovans and Homo longi both had large, similar molars, the study noted, but, given the small number of fossils available for comparison, it was impossible to say for sure, said Ni, who hoped that DNA experiments might reveal whether they are the same species.

“We’ve only just begun what will be years of studying this fascinating fossil,” Stringer said.

A Library Discovered Behind a Wall in the Sakya Monastery Has 84,000 Unread Manuscripts!

A Library Discovered Behind a Wall in the Sakya Monastery Has 84,000 Unread Manuscripts!

In 2003, an ancient library was discovered, hidden behind a wall inside the Buddhist Sakya Monastery. The Sakya Monastery stands in the Tibet Autonomous Region, in the Southwestern part of the People’s Republic of China. Located around 300 miles west of Lhasa, Tibet, Sakya remains one of the foremost centers for Tibetan Buddhism and learning.

With more than 80,000 untouched manuscripts, this library was safely tucked away behind a wall. Historians suggest that this was probably to protect it from Chinese Communist attacks.  This enlightening historical discovery can reveal a lot about the history of the region!

Let us unravel some truthful and not-so-truthful facts about the Sakya Library.

The Sakya Library, with 84,000 manuscripts, dates back 10,000 years – fact check.

A Library Discovered Behind a Wall in the Sakya Monastery Has 84,000 Unread Manuscripts!
The manuscripts at Sakya Library are stacked.
The manuscripts at Sakya Library.

Most social media posts and articles mention that the library has 84,000 manuscripts that contain 10,000 years of human history and secrets of ancient civilizations. Since then, many scholars and experts have come forward to clarify the claim.

They all believe that 10,000 years would predate the earliest recorded writing in human history. According to an editor and researcher for the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Joshua J. Mark, the oldest known written literature is the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh, the great Sumerian work that dates back to 2150 to 1400 BCE. This fact has also been corroborated by other experts and scholars who all agree that the oldest written work in human history was indeed invented in Mesopotamia by the Sumerians. That was around 5,500 years ago. Therefore, the 10,000 years claim is unlikely to be true.

(Left) Neo-Assyrian clay tablet. Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11: Story of the Flood. Known as the “Flood Tablet.” (Right) Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The manuscripts, or paper on which these scrolls are written, are unlikely to be as old as 10,000 years. Ancient Egyptian scrolls on papyrus are around 5,000 years old. Also, the paper was first discovered in China only around 2,000 years ago.

The fact that this secret library contains 84,000 manuscripts was verified by a few news agencies. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China mentions on its website that there are 80,000 volumes in the collection of centuries-old texts at Sakya Monastery. Therefore, 84,000 manuscripts do not seem to be far-fetched, and this could very well be true.

The Sakya Library has a book that weighs 1,102 pounds.

Inside the Main Chanting Hall of the Sakya Monastery.

The Commission also mentions that the books are stacked in 200-foot-long and 30-foot-high racks in near complete darkness in a storage facility that is 250 feet from the monastery’s main hall, in a chamber behind the main altar. However, all these books were untouched and remained in one place for hundreds of years. Therefore, it will still take a lot of time for experts to go through all of them. But the work has started!

Most of the books in the Sakya Library are Buddhist scriptures. They are handwritten in Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Sanskrit. The books also include works of literature, astronomy, mathematics, art, agriculture, history, and philosophy. Interestingly, the Sakya Library is known to have a scripture that weighs more than 1,100 pounds.

The Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences (TASS), the leading organization responsible for all of the Tibetan Digital Library’s fieldwork in the Tibet Autonomous Region, examined the Sakya Library in 2003. TASS is still checking and categorizing the huge collection of books and palm-leaf manuscripts in the library. As of 2022, all the books are indexed, and more than 20% of books have already been digitized.

Historical accounts describe books written in gold letters, bound in iron.

Even before the new hidden library was discovered in 2003, Sakya Monastery always had a rich collection of scriptures. Sarat Chandra Das was an Indian Scholar of the Tibetan language and culture who journeyed to Tibet in 1879 and 1881. He writes in his account that there are volumes written in gold letters in the Sakya Library. Some manuscripts are six feet long and 18 inches in breadth. There are books with illuminated margins and also books bound in iron. Some are even adorned with images of a thousand Buddhas. Such fascinating, rich accounts of the Sakya Library make the place even more enigmatic. According to historians, these extraordinary manuscripts were made under the direct orders of emperor Kublai Khan and presented to the fifth leader of the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism, Phagpa Lama.

A Very Brief History of the Sakya Monastery

Sakya monastery, a pious place of worship, is a hidden treasure trove in the barren mountains. It is a seat of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, situated in the Tibet Autonomous Region, around 78 miles west of Shigatse.

The northern part of the monastery, built in 1073 CE, was grand, with over 100 buildings. It was built by Khön Könchok Gyalpo, a Nyingmapa monk from the powerful Tsang family. He became the first Sakya. The southern monastery was founded in 1268 CE across the Zhongqu River, which separated the southern part from the northern one. It was colored red, white, and gray in honor of the three Buddhist Tulkas. But, most of this southern monastery was burned down in the 16th century and restored only in 1948.

After the Lhasa uprising in 1959, which intended to protect the 14th Dalai Lama from the Communist Party of China, most of the monks fled the monastery. However, during the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the northern monastery was totally destroyed. What remains now is a two-story hall overlooking the southern monastery. It is said that the Sakya Library was spared at the behest of Premier Zhou Enlai. It was rebuilt only in 2002.

Corridor with two rows of prayer wheels along the walls in Sakya Monastery, Tibet, China.

Today, most experts believe that the Sakya Library is the largest surviving account of the history of the Tibetan areas of China and therefore holds immense importance.

Archaeologists Are Too Terrified To Look Inside Tomb Of China’s First Emperor

Archaeologists Are Too Terrified To Look Inside Tomb Of China’s First Emperor

In 1974, farmers stumbled across one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time in an unassuming field in the Shaanxi province of China.

Archaeologists Are Too Terrified To Look Inside Tomb Of China's First Emperor
The Terracotta Army was buried near the tomb of Qin Shi Huang to protect him in his afterlife.

While digging, they found fragments of a human figure made out of clay. This was just the tip of the iceberg. Archaeological excavations revealed the field was sitting above a number of pits that were jam-packed with thousands of life-size terracotta models of soldiers and war horses, not to mention acrobats, esteemed officials, and other animals.

It appears that the mission of this Terracotta Army was to guard the nearby mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the formidable first emperor of the Qin dynasty who ruled from 221 to 210 BCE.

While large parts of the necropolis surrounding the mausoleum have been explored, the emperor’s tomb itself has never been opened despite the huge amount of intrigue that surrounds it. Eyes have perhaps not peered inside this tomb for over 2,000 years, when the feared emperor was sealed inside. 

A prime reason behind this hesitancy is that archaeologists are concerned about how the excavation might damage the tomb, losing vital historical information. Currently, only invasive archaeological techniques could be used to enter the tomb, running a high risk of causing irreparable damage. 

One of the clearest examples of this comes from the excavations of the city of Troy in the 1870s by Heinrich Schliemann. In his hastiness and naivety, his work managed to destroy almost all traces of the very city he’d set out to uncover. Archaeologists are certain they don’t want to be impatient and make these same mistakes again.

Scientists have floated the idea of using certain non-invasive techniques to look inside the tomb. One idea is to utilize muons, the subatomic product of cosmic rays colliding with atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, which can peer through structures like an advanced X-ray. However, it looks like most of these proposals have been slow to get off the ground. 

Tomb of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, Xi’an, China.

Cracking open the tomb could come with much more immediate and deadly dangers too. In an account written by ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian around 100 years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, he explains that the tomb is hooked up to booby traps that were designed to kill any intruder. 

“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,” it reads. 

Even if the 2,000-year-old bow weapons fail, this account suggests a flood of toxic liquid mercury could wash across the gravediggers. That might sound like an empty threat, but scientific studies have looked at mercury concentrations around the tomb and found significantly higher levels than they’d expect in a typical piece of land. 

“Highly volatile mercury may be escaping through cracks, which developed in the structure over time, and our investigation supports ancient chronicle records on the tomb, which is believed never to have been opened/looted,” the authors of one 2020 paper conclude. 

For the time being, the tomb of Qin Shi Huang remains sealed and unseen, but not forgotten. When the time is right, however, it’s possible that scientific advancements could finally delve into the secrets that have been lying here undisturbed for some 2,200 years. 

An earlier version of this story was published in January 2023.