China unmasked: ‘Vast buried world’ untouched and hidden beneath First Emperor’s tomb

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China is largely considered to have developed in isolation until the Italian merchant and explorer Marco Polo made his way east in 1275. He spent the next 17 years of his life there, exchanging ideas, culture, and forging alliances with the powerful Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. This period of west-to-east connection has interested historians and academics alike for centuries.

However, perhaps more intriguing and mysterious is the vast Terracotta Army discovered in 1974 in the country’s former capital Xi’an.

Thousands of life-like terracotta figures were unearthed, thought to be 2,000 years old, buried to protect the First Emperor Qin of China in the afterlife, the design of which contrasts entirely with sculpture techniques of the time, leading many to suggest that an outsider Western influence helped in their construction.

During the BBC’s ‘The Greatest Tomb on Earth: Secrets of Ancient China’ historians Dan Snow, Dr Alice Roberts and Dr Albert Lin probed the site for these Western influences.

It was here that the team gained unprecedented access to the area around the Emperor’s tomb, and for the first time were able to fly a drone overhead to gauge the full extent of the tomb and its vast underground network.

As Mr Snow explained: “At 100 square kilometres, this is the biggest burial site on Earth – 200 times bigger than Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.

“And that’s just what’s visible on the surface.

“Beneath these fields, archaeologists have uncovered a vast buried world of more than 600 pits and structures.

“Each one a goldmine of archaeological riches.

“Almost everyday there are new discoveries.”

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Some of the discoveries the on-site BBC team made were groundbreaking in themselves.

Dr Lin uncovered an ancient road, appearing to span metres upon metres, that would have once been used by traders and soldiers travelling to and from the tomb and what existed there before.

It offered a sign that an ancient Chinese civilisation once thrived in what is now largely forestry and sparse housing.

Much of the underground treasures have yet to be uncovered, such is the size of the site.


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Back when workers first discovered the thousands of clay figures, archaeologists were sent out, expecting to return within a few weeks after recording and taking samples of Qing Dynasty artefacts for analysis.

As the dig went on, it soon became clear that there was far more to be discovered.

Many of the archaeologists who first arrived ended up staying for decades, with some still working to uncover new sites around the tomb today.

Each soldier has a unique facial expression in what would have been a hugely meticulous and time-consuming task.

They are placed in order of rank, and though largely grey today, would once have been painted in brightly coloured clothes and weapons.

Meanwhile, Qin’s tomb itself remains unexcavated, with strict regulations in place by the Chinese government.

Historic texts suggest that there are even greater treasures in Qin’s tomb than the Terracotta Army.

The Chinese historian, Siam Qian, said: “The tomb was filled with models of palaces, pavilions and offices as well as fine vessels, precious stones and rarities.”

Qian’s account indicates the tomb contains replicas of the area’s rivers and streams, made with mercury, that flow to the sea through hills and mountains of bronze.

Precious stones are said to adorn the insides too, with pearls representing the Moon, the Sun and other stars.

Sensing technology has been used by Chinese archaeologists in a bid to penetrate at least some of the tomb.

They have found evidence for an underground chamber with four star-like walls.

Authorised digs around the tomb have revealed dancers, musicians, and acrobats caught in mid-performance – a stark contrast to the still image Terracotta Army.

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