After discovering a secret palace hidden in China's first emperor massive burial complex, Chinese technicians are nervous. Not because Qin Shi Huang's tomb is the most important archaeological discovery since Tutankhamen, but because they believe his burial place is full of deadly traps that will kill any trespassers. Not to talk about deadly quantities of mercury.
The secret courtyard-style palace tomb is a mind-numbing discovery. Situated in the heart of the Emperor's 56km² mortuary compound, guarded by more than 6000 (and counting) full-size statues of warriors, musicians and acrobats, the buried palace is 690 x 250m. It includes 18 courtyard houses overlooked by one main building, where the emperor is supposed to be. The palace — which has already been partially mapped in 3D using volumetric scanners — occupied a space of 170,000m². That's one fourth the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing — for just one tomb.
Experts believe that the 76m-high structure covered with soil and kept dry thanks to a complex draining system, hides the body of the emperor and his courtiers. Nobody knows what's the state of their bodies, but one of the leading archaeologists believes that they are most likely destroyed by now.
What it's probably intact are the countless treasures that — according to the ancient scrolls that describe the emperor's long lost burial site — fill the interior of the tomb. And perhaps the deadly traps guarding them too.
Talking to Spanish newspaper El Pais, the archaeologists working at the excavation said that "it's like having a present all wrapped at home, knowing that inside is what you always wanted, and not being able to open it." But, at the same time, nobody wants to be the first to get inside because of the mausoleum's dangerous traps detailed in the same texts that recount its abundant riches.
It's not clear if the traps are really there, even while many texts describe them. There are no reports of traps in any tombs in any ancient culture. According to Emily Teeter — University of Chicago's Oriental Institute's curator of Egyptian and Nubian antiquities — traps are a legend as much as curses:
I am really sorry to report that if curses are out, then there is really nothing devious. Hollywood has turned standard architectural features like sliding portcullis blocks, shafts, and sand filled chambers into objects of horror. Sorry that the Egyptians were not more evil.
So what about that giant ball that chases Indy at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Well, the ball exists, says the expert in Central American archaeology Dr Winifred Creamer:
Costa Rica definitely has those big stone balls. The balls had ceased to be made by the time of the first Spanish explorers, and remained completely forgotten until they were rediscovered in the 1940s. Many of the balls were found to be in alignments, consisting of straight and curved lines, as well as triangles and parallelograms. One group of four balls was found to be arranged in a line oriented to magnetic north. This has led to speculation that they may have been arranged by people familiar with the use of magnetic compasses, or astronomical alignments.
Sadly, it seems those giant balls weren't part of any traps.
But let's assume that this is a new thing and the Chinese really installed booby traps that triggered deadly crossbows in the emperor's tomb. Even if the old Chinese texts are correct, it isn't clear if they would still work after two thousand years. Perhaps the mechanisms so rusty that will never fire. Maybe the wood and the cords used the in the traps have long been destroyed by bacteria.
Chinese historian Guo Zhikun argues the contrary, however. He is one of the main experts on Qinshihuang's burial site and says that it's very possible that the traps are still active. He claims that the use of chrome in the figures may indicate that the traps received the same treatment in order to protect them. He is sure that "the artisans who built the traps installed crossbows that will fire if any thief tries to get inside."
What may be deadly, however, is the high, deadly concentration of mercury inside the tomb. On-site measurements indicate dangerous levels of mercury, which may come from another feature described in the rolls: the imperial engineers created large rivers of quicksilver inside the tomb. So much that the level of mercury inside could be deadly for any unprotected adventurers.
Fortunately for everyone involved, the Chinese government hasn't decided what to do with the hidden complex yet. The authorities will wait for some time because they believe that, with the current technology, you can't get inside the tomb without destroying some of its contents. Good. [El País and Straight Dope]