LONDON & WASHINGTON--(BUSINESS WIRE)--In 1974, an unprecedented discovery was made by farmers in central China: more than 8,000 terracotta figures that were buried less than one mile from the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. In the four decades since the discovery, archaeologists and scholars have continued to study this remarkable site, and though much has been revealed, much has remained a mystery. But new excavations across the site by mausoleum archaeologists, documented by cameras for National Geographic Channel and BBC audiences, offer new revelations about the tomb itself that rewrite the history of China and its contact with the western world.
Evidence of Close Contact Between Greek and Chinese Civilizations in the Third Century B.C.
Dr. Li Xiuzhen, senior archaeologist at the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, China, said, “We now have evidence that close contact existed between the First Emperor’s China and the west before the formal opening of the Silk Road. This is far earlier than we formerly thought.”
Before the creation of the First Emperor’s tomb, there was no tradition of building life-size human statues in China. Statues found dating before the First Emperor’s time are 8-inch (20-centimeter) tall, simple figurines. Where the Terracotta Warriors came from and who created them has previously been a mystery. To explain how such an enormous change in skill and style could have happened, Dr. Xiuzhen believes that influences must have come from outside of China.
Professor Lukas Nickel, chair in Asian art history at the Department of History of Art at the University of Vienna, has examined statues of circus acrobats recently found at the First Emperor’s tomb site, and he believes they support this astonishing new theory that 1,500 years before Marco Polo there was an exchange of people, ideas and technologies between Chinese civilization in the east and ancient Greek civilization in the west. If true, this would be the first documented contact between western and Chinese civilizations ever recorded.
Dr. Nickel’s theory is that the First Emperor was influenced by the arrival of Greek statues in central Asia in the century following Alexander the Great. And Greek artisans may have been at the First Emperor’s site.
Dr. Nickel concludes, “I imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals.”
Other recent evidence is found in a collection of exquisite bronze figurines of birds excavated from the tomb site. They exhibit manufacturing techniques uncommon in China — and akin to the lost wax technique known in ancient Greece and Egypt.
Dr. Xiuzhen added, “We now think the Terracotta Army, the acrobats and the bronze sculptures found on site have been inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art.”
Professor Zhang Weixing, lead archaeologist at the tomb site, concludes, “The archaeological work undertaken here recently is more important than anything in the past 40 years. By systematically examining the First Emperor’s main tomb and subsidiary burials, we have discovered something more important even than the Terracotta Army.”
Weixing and his team have discovered — laid out in front of the First Emperor’s own tomb — the bones of young women buried with precious jewelry made of gold and pearls, which could have belonged only to very high-ranking women. Dr. Huan Yang, who has been excavating the bones, believes these young women were concubines of the First Emperor. Disturbingly, it looks as if their bodies were mutilated at the time of their deaths. There are 99 individual identified graves of this kind on the site. Ten have been excavated so far — and each one contains the mutilated remains of a young woman.
The Skull of an Executed Prince?
The skull of a very high-ranking male was found buried east of the First Emperor’s tomb with a crossbow bolt embedded in the back of the skull. This bolt appears to have been fired from close range, indicating an execution-style killing. Chinese archaeologists working at the site believe the skull might belong to Prince Fu Su — the eldest son of the First Emperor — because he was buried with artifacts belonging to the royal family. Chinese archaeologists assert that the burial pit contains the bones of a total of seven individuals, all of whom were murdered. This matches historical evidence of a “Game of Thrones”-style power struggle in which Prince Fu Su and his other siblings were murdered by his younger brother Prince Hu Hai in a vicious sibling rivalry that ensued after the death of their father.
These were not the only skeletons found: Among the discoveries are mass graves. In one such grave, tools the workers used to construct the tomb complex were found, along with the arm and neck shackles that bound the workers. The first facial reconstruction of a skull of one of the workers buried within the temple complex has been made, allowing us to come face to face with these workers from the past.
Size and Layout of the Site
The archaeological work has now revealed the whole site covers a zone of nearly 38 square miles (100 square km) below the northern foothills of Mt. Li. The site was formerly believed to be nearly half that size, at 22 square miles (57 square km). Experts have undertaken a comprehensive investigation of the site, including remote sensing surveys and targeted excavations. They have also completed a systematic archaeological survey using remote sensing technologies, ground-penetrating radar and core sampling techniques. These have revealed that the First Emperor’s main tomb lies undisturbed beneath a man-made pyramid and a vast structure with walls 476 feet (145 meters) long on each side and 45 feet (14 meters) tall. Found surrounding the First Emperor’s burial site were tomb corridors, including the burial chambers of the concubines, their living quarters and a 216-foot-wide (66-meter) road leading into the site, which is the size of a modern 16-lane superhighway.
Dr. Albert Lin’s Discovery of Two Roads
The filmmakers were granted exclusive access to fly a drone, mounted with a thermal imaging camera, over the site. Using the footage from the drone along with satellite imagery, engineer and explorer Dr. Albert Lin discovered what seem to be two of the First Emperor’s roads emanating out of the site. One of them heads in a northwesterly direction toward Lintao, the gateway to and from the west. The team at the mausoleum is now following up on this exciting new discovery.
European-specific mitochondrial DNA has been found at sites in Xinjiang Province, China, which reveals that Europeans traveled there, settled down there and died there before and during the time of the First Emperor.
Weixing said, “It is an incredibly exciting time at the Mausoleum of the First Emperor. This is the largest archaeological site in the world; from our latest work, we now know it covers an area of almost one hundred square kilometers. Recent excavations here have led to extraordinary new insights into the China he created.”
These extraordinary and groundbreaking discoveries will be revealed in two exclusive new television programs. “The Greatest Tomb on Earth,” a one-hour special hosted by Dan Snow, Dr. Alice Roberts and Dr. Albert Lin will air in the United Kingdom on BBC Two on Sunday, Oct. 16, at 8 p.m.; and the two-hour drama-documentary hybrid China’s Megatomb Revealed, hosted by Dr. Albert Lin, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, will air on the National Geographic Channel in the U.S. on Sunday, October 23 at 8/7c. It will also air on National Geographic Channels around the world (excluding the UK) in 170 other countries and in 45 languages (check local listings for dates and time). Both programs will make viewers rethink the history of one of the world’s largest ancient civilizations.
Executive Vice President of Programming and Development for National Geographic Channel Hamish Mykura said, “The scope of these archaeological finds and what they mean for world history are astonishing. The new revelation that two of the world’s ancient superpowers may have been in contact is a vital reminder today of the need for intercultural communication on a global scale. It is a tale worthy of National Geographic and BBC’s legacies in delivering groundbreaking stories around the world.”
Commissioning Editor for the BBC Rachel Morgan said, “It is thrilling to think that these discoveries, using cutting technologies and the forensic techniques of the 21st century, have the potential to alter what we know about the origin and formation of one of the world’s most powerful countries today and the relationships forged between ancient civilizations. The BBC and National Geographic are excited to partner together and, likewise, forge relationships with Chinese archaeologists and scientists, and together throw a shaft of light back through millennia to break this news and tell the story across the world.”
BBC presenter Snow said, “Exploring the vast necropolis of the First Emperor was a privilege and an incredible experience, and I hope audiences will find the new evidence as astonishing and thought-provoking as I did. It is extraordinary to think that history as we know it is changeable, and I have long been fascinated by the secrets held by the tomb complex.”
National Geographic presenter Dr. Albert Lin said, “We have only just scraped the surface of the tomb complex, but it has given us a window into the very foundation of our shared global story. There could not be a better team of archaeologists and historians working to unearth and preserve these findings. It was inspiring to join them in revolutionizing our knowledge of the history of this period. And it is an important reminder that we need to be continually exploring and asking questions about the world we live in.”
This is a co-production by Brook Lapping Ltd. for the BBC and National Geographic Channel. Executive producers for Brook Lapping are Lucy van Beek and Greg Sanderson. Commissioning editor for the BBC is Rachel Morgan; for National Geographic Channel, executive vice president of programming and development is Hamish Mykura and senior director of development and production is Simon Young. Chinese director Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”) supervised the scripted sequences for National Geographic Channel.
China’s Megatomb Revealed
Airs globally on National Geographic Channel (outside the U.K.) beginning Sunday, Oct. 16
Emerging Explorer Dr. Albert Lin and National Geographic Channel unearth the terrible secrets that lie hidden in the tomb of China’s First Emperor. The Terracotta Warriors are just the tip of the iceberg in the largest tomb complex ever discovered, which has gone largely unexcavated … until now. These silent statues guard explosive, macabre findings that paint a very different picture of the ancient world from what we thought we knew. For more information on the discoveries highlighted in the program, please visit National Geographic News or pick up the November issue of National Geographic magazine.
The Greatest Tomb on Earth
Airs in the U.K. on BBC Two on Sunday, Oct. 16, at 8 p.m.
From the depths of the greatest tomb on earth comes an epic new story that could rewrite history, revealing for the first time the true origin of one of the world’s most powerful nations: China. In this landmark film, historian Dan Snow, anthropologist Dr. Alice Roberts and explorer and engineer Dr. Albert Lin investigate a series of earth-shattering discoveries at the mighty tomb guarded by the Terracotta Warriors, a site 200 times bigger than Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and the final resting place of China’s First Emperor. Mobilizing the latest technology, delving into some of the oldest texts, enlisting world experts and employing forensic science, together the three reveal an explosive secret from the foundations of the Chinese empire.