The first page of Sima Qian's Shiji (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Monday, December 10, 2007
Buried rivers of mercury
Yesterday I got to see the British Museum's Terracotta Warriors exhibition, The First Emperor. There is more than just an army buried down there: there are bronze birds, musicians, civil servants - everything an emperor might need to make the afterlife more agreeable. In his Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) Sima Qian had written (c90 BCE) of 'Palaces, scenic towers, and the hundred officials, as well as rare utensils and wonderful objects were brought to fill up the tomb... Mercury was used to fashion the hundred rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, and the seas in such a way that they flowed. Above were the hevenly bodies, below, the features of the earth' (trans. Burton Watson). Now it seems this description may not have been hyperbole. Intriguingly, tests have shown high levels of mercury at the site, so perhaps there really is a whole buried landscape under there. Chinese archaeologists are proceeding cautiously, searching for non-invasive ways of uncovering the past without a full excavation, so it could be some years before we know.