Re-evaluating the History of Xian's TerracottaWarriors
The Qin Terracotta Warriors were discovered in China's Shaanxi province near Xi'an in 1974 by six local farmers. A flurry of national media surrounded the discovery, and excavations were soon begun. The figures were found to be part of a massive burial complex whose construction was ordered by the First Emperor of China, Qin Shihuangdi, when he ascended the throne in 246 BC. The underground city, which includes not only a life-size army, but also a variety of other court members and serving staff, was built to provide the Emperor with the resources necessary to recreate his earthly realm in the afterlife.
In addition to the first pit discovered by the farmers, two more pits were found nearby, containing altogether around 8,000 life-size warriors and horse s. These had been buried 5-7 meters underground, and archaeological studies have confirmed that there was at one point a wooden ceiling of about 3.5 meters high covering the warriors. Archaeologists believe that the subterranean structure was constructed by first digging a pit about five meters deep, which was then divided into sections by rammed-earth partitions. The builders then placed the beams of the wooden roof on top of these partitions, and covered the entire structure with a layer of earth 2.7 to 3 meters deep.
When the warriors were excavated, almost all the pottery figures were broken and the wooden ceiling had been burned. Carbon dating methods indicate that the ceiling was burned 2200 years ago, very soon after the death of Qin Shihuangdi. Sima Qian's Shi ji, one of China's oldest historical records, indicates that the Qin Emperor's palace and mausoleum were destroyed in the rebellions that surged just four years after the Qin Shihuangdi died, in 206 BC. As a result, most archaeologists believe that the reason why the warriors were found crushed beneath an incinerated wooden ceiling is because the rebels opened the underground complex in order to get at the weapons, and then set it ablaze.
However, there are some problems with this explanation. First, scans of the Emperor's tomb, which has not yet been excavated, indicate that it has never been opened, contrary to the Sima Qian's assertion that it was burned by the rebels. Furthermore, had the rebels actually penetrated the terracotta army complex to the east of the tomb, as they would have needed to do in order to burn the entire structure, in all likelihood they would have looted the bronze weapons buried with the figures. As over 40,000 bronze weapons have been unearthed in pits one and three, with possibly more still buried in p it two, this clearly did not happen.
There are also practical physical reasons why the present theory is untenable, making it urgently necessary to re-evaluate the current explanation for the state in which the warriors were found. The air 3.5 meters underground would not have been rich enough in oxygen to support a fire capable of destroying the entire ceiling. Also, the wood, after having been buried for many years, would have been wet or even rotten. It would have been difficult to burn under the best of conditions, but interred in a vast underground complex with little or no ventilation, it would have been next to impossible produce a fire destructive enough to cause the structure to collapse.
Overwhelming evidence suggests that the terracotta figures buried for the First Emperor's use could not, in fact, have been destroyed by the rebels intent on overthrowing the Qin dynasty. I would like to propose an alternate theory, which I believe conforms both to China's ancient and traditional religious practices as well as to the physical evidence unearthed by archaeologists.
In China, the oldest religious tradition, dating back even before the time of the First Emperor, is Daoism. According to the Daoists, the only way to send objects to the dead is by burning them as a sacrifice. This tradition persists even today, as people continue to burn paper money, horses, cars, etc., as offerings to their loved ones who have passed away. The layout of the underground complex, including its location and organization, suggests that the Emperor was convinced of the importance of feng shui, or geomancy, and used Daoist concepts in the construction of his underground realm. It is logical to conclude, then, that he would have want ed to ensure that he would have access to this upon his death, causing him to leave instructions that the complex be burned as a sacrifice to him after he died. I believe that the underground city containing the terracotta figures was constructed from the start with the intent to burn their contents, thus ensuring that they would reach the emperor in the spirit world.
After the wooden ceiling was burned, I believe it was buried by only a very thin layer of earth, not enough yet to produce a crushing pressure. 2,200 years ago, the ground level around the tombs was probably much lower, and when the pits with the warriors were finished, the wooden ceiling was in open air with around one-half to one meter above ground. However, yearly flooding during Shaanxi's rainy season over time could easily bring enough earth down from the mountains to bury the figures at their current depth. To the south of the Qin Emperor's mausole um lies a mountain which was completely deforested by the tomb builders in the process of constructing the enormous burial structure. The mountain is composed of earth, not stone, and when it floods every year, the water brings dirt and silt downhill. Over time, this caused the soldiers to be buried deeper and deeper underground. This accounts for the state in which the soldiers were discovered, as the pressure from the mounting flood material would have eventually produced the cave-in which destroyed the figures. The pattern of destruction in the opened pits corroborates this theory, as the flank guards, which are to the edges of the pit where the pressure would have been less intense, are relatively intact, as are the kneeling archers, who sit lower than the rest of the army and may in fact have been already partially buried by flood material by the time they were buried.
In Pit Number Two, it can be seen that the northern p art of the pit is four meters lower than the south. This is because the mountain, where the floods originate, is located to the south, producing uneven deposit patterns of flood material. From this it can be concluded that the earth on top of the wooden ceiling was brought by flood waters, and was not placed there 2,200 years ago by the First Emperor's workers.
The terrain around Xian is mostly loess, a special kind of silt or clay which erodes easily when soaked with rainwater. This supports the supposition that the terracotta figures were buried in successively deeper layers of earth after the initial burial, not interred seven meters deep immediately upon the emperor's death. Loess is also relatively soft, and this special geological property has made it possible for people in Shaanxi to hollow out caves in the hillsides. People have been living in these caves for several thousand years, and there are still more than on e million people living in cave dwellings around Xian and throughout Shaanxi province. If the Emperor had indeed wanted the the figures safely buried underground, it would have been much more reasonable and secure to place them in caves rather than bury them under a wooden ceiling vulnerable to the destructive forces of time and decomposition.
After several years of observation and study, I have concluded that the evidence points to an entirely different explanation of the warriors' history than the one that is currently accepted. It is improbable that the rebels penetrated the pits where the warriors were buried, as no looting is evident and scans of the mausoleum to the west do not indicate that it has been opened since its initial construction and burial. Physically speaking, once the complex was buried, as the excavators assume it was upon completion, it would have been impossible for the rebels to burn the wooden ceiling due to a lack of air and the dampness of the wood. The depth of the complex also varies markedly from the south to the north, suggesting that it was not buried to its present depth by its builders, but instead was gradually covered by flood material brought down from the mountain during the rainy season. This evidence shows that the existing explanation is inadequate. Drawing on my knowledge of ancient religious practices and historical traditions, which are evident in the construction and choice of location for the First Emperor's tomb, I believe that the Emperor ordered the complex to be built as a future sacrifice to his spirit after his death. This explanation matches not only the physical evidence revealed during excavation, but also the traditional beliefs that predominated at the time of the tomb's construction.