Concerns about opening the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang include mercury poisoning and booby traps.

In an unassuming field in the Shaanxi province of China, farmers made one of the most significant archaeological finds of all time in 1974. They unearthed pieces of a clay human figure while excavating. Simply put, this was the tip of the ocean. The field was located above some pits crammed with thousands of life-size terracotta replicas of troops, war horses, acrobats, esteemed officials, and other animals. This information was discovered through archaeological digs.

The task of this Terracotta Army, which ruled from 221 to 210 BCE, appears to have been to protect the adjacent mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang. Qin Shi Huang was the imposing first emperor of the Qin dynasty.

The Terracotta Army near the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China

The Terracotta Army was buried near the tomb of Qin Shi Huang to protect him in his afterlife. Image credit: toiletroom/


Despite its enormous mystery, the emperor’s tomb has never been opened, even though significant portions of the necropolis encircling the mausoleum have been investigated. Perhaps it has been over 2,000 years since anyone has peeked inside this tomb to see the dreaded monarch imprisoned there.

This hesitation is largely due to archeologists’ worries that the dig may harm the tomb and destroy important historical evidence. Only invasive archaeological methods can currently be used to access the tomb, carrying a high risk of doing permanent harm.

Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations of the city of Troy in the 1870s provide one of the best instances of this. His effort managed to virtually wipe out all traces of the very city he had set out to uncover due to his haste and naivete. Researchers are certain they don’t want to rush things and repeat these errors.

The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China

The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. Image credit: Aaron Zhu/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Scientists have proposed employing some non-intrusive methods to examine the tomb. One concept is utilizing muons, a subatomic particles created when cosmic rays collide with atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, which can peer through objects like an advanced X-ray. However, it appears that few of these ideas have taken off.

Many more urgent and lethal risks may be associated with breaking open the tomb. Sima Qian, an old Chinese historian who lived approximately 100 years after Qin Shi Huang’s passing, describes how the tomb is outfitted with booby traps to kill intruders.

“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 entered the tomb. Mercury was used to simulating a hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically,” it reads.

This report indicates that a flood of poisonous liquid mercury could wash across the grave diggers even if the 2,000-year-old bow weapons malfunction. That might sound like a hollow threat, but studies of mercury concentrations near the tomb have revealed considerably higher levels than predicted for a typical plot of land.

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

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