Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Mercurial Emperor's Tomb
This morning I was checking the news while eating breakfast and I came across this story on the BBC:

Royal Chinese treasure discovered
The burial mound covering the tomb [of China's first emperor] has remained largely untouched by archaeologists for fear of damaging the treasures it contains.

But the magnetic scan of the area, conducted by Chinese and German archaeologists, revealed new details about the structure of the mausoleum and a "remarkable amount of coins," the official Xinhua news agency reported.

I've been there. I stood on top of the mound and looked around at the pomegranate groves and fields surrounding it. It is actually quite a ways from the opened pits of terra cotta soldiers which we had just toured, so one can only imagine how many more pits of warriors and what all left. They're really waiting for better preservation techniques before they open anything else, though, because we know that the current warriors were all painted bright colors that oxidized within minutes of excavators breaking through.

The story that I heard of why they really don't want to open the tomb mound itself, though, has to do with mercury. The written plans and descriptions they have found for the tomb say that the emperor called for a jeweled representation of the heavens to cover the ceiling, and a jeweled map of his empire to cover the floor, complete with a flowing river of mercury, which the emperor believed would make him immortal. Therefore, it is believed that the tomb contains many wonders too magnificent to wish to damage with insufficient preservation, but also a great deal of mercury that has been in an enclosed space for a very, very long time, and they're not sure what it's done in the meantime. In the interest of not poisoning the archeologists and other workers while opening the tomb, they're not too keen on doing so until they're sure they can contain the mercury, whatever state it may be in.

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