Five guesses on Emperor Qin Shihuang's tomb

Qin Shihuang holds a central place in Chinese history for being the first emperor who united the country. He is also well known for his part in the construction of the spectacular Great Wall and his splendid terracotta army.

To ensure his rule in the afterlife, this emperor commanded more than 700,000 conscripts from all parts of the country to build him a grand mausoleum as luxurious as any of the palaces he had in mortal life. Legend says that numerous treasures were placed in the tomb.

As time passed, no one knew exactly what was put in the grand palace. Recently, Guo Zhikun, a specialist in the history of the Qin (221 BC-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties, gave a press conference in Xi'an, the capital city of west China's Shaanxi Province. He disclosed his academic research results focusing on the Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang, making bold guesses about the mysterious tomb complex that fascinates the whole world.

Guess 1: How tall was the tomb mound?

According to Guo, the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang is actually composed of two parts: the tomb mound, a hillock above the tomb, and the underground palace, the chamber containing the emperor's coffin.

Most historical records indicate that the original tomb mound was 115 meters in height and 2,076 meters in girth. Exposed to the wind and sun for thousands of years, the mound has been greatly weathered down. The current girth is 1,390 meters, and the base of the mound covers an area of 120,750 square meters.

There has been a decades-long argument about why the mound's height dropped so sharply in recent years. Guo said that most people attributed it to the erosion from wind and rain and to manmade changes. However, another opinion has emerged recently. According to Duan Qingbo who leads the archaeological team at the mausoleum, the height of 115 meters recorded in most historical documents was just a figure copied down from the original blueprint. It is believed that the construction was left unfinished due to a nationwide uprising of peasants. After the emperor's corpse was placed in the chamber, the tomb mound project began. Later, about half of the laborers were transferred to the construction site of another palace building. When the peasant army approached the Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang, the second emperor of the dynasty, who had taken the throne from his dead father, hastily organized the remaining workers on the construction site to fight against the rebels. No more soil were added onto the hillock later.

Guess 2: How many gates does the underground palace have?
Opinions also differ on how many gates the underground palace contains. Some said there were two, one made of stone and the other of bronze. Others said that there were six, because Emperor Qin Shihuang had always considered the number "six" auspicious.

How many gates does the underground palace have then? After reading through piles of ancient documents, Guo Zhikun said that the exact number was recorded clearly in Records of the Historian, a great historical book written by Sima Qian. In it, the author wrote, "When the emperor died, he was placed in the underground palace. Then, the middle gate was closed and the outer gate was shut down. All workmen were entombed. No one escaped."

Guo explained that the emperor's coffin and all his burial articles were placed inside the middle gate. When the palace was shut down, workmen were busy working in it. Within seconds, however, they were entombed along with the emperor and became burial sacrifices themselves.

From Sima Qian's description, Guo inferred that the underground palace had three gates: an outer gate, a middle gate and an unmentioned inner gate. In addition, in Sima Qian's record, the middle gate was "closed", which meant it had two planks, and the outer gate was "shut down", which meant it slide down vertically. Guo believed the middle door was locked automatically once it was closed. It was designed deliberately to prevent any breakthrough from inside or any invasion from outside. Besides, Guo guessed the unmentioned inner gate had the same mechanism as the middle one and the three gates were located on a straight line.

Guess 3: How many treasures lie buried?

The tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuang was filled with fine vessels, precious stones and other rarities according to Sima Qian's record. Liu Xiang, another famous scholar before Sima Qian, wrote in one of his passages, "Since antiquity, no one has ever been buried in such a luxurious manner as Emperor Qin Shihuang."

All the sketchy but intriguing words made us curious about the mysterious wealth buried in the magnificent underground palace. In Records of the Historian, one can find descriptions about a golden wild goose, pearls and jade. But what else lies down there?

In the late 1980s, a large bronze chariot equipped with life-size horses was unearthed outside the west wall of the underground palace of Emperor Qin Shihuang. These elaborately decorated burial articles fascinated the world about the treasures hidden in the emperor's tomb chamber.

"Emperor Qin Shihuang was fond of music. He must have all kinds of musical instruments buried with him," guessed Guo. Recently, a pit for sacrifices was found between the inner wall and outer wall of the tomb complex. Covering 600 square meters, the pit was 40 meters wide from east to west and 15 meters long from north to south. Most of the articles excavated were pottery figures of courtiers, musicians and acrobats. In recent years, a variety of traditional Chinese musical instruments, such as Bianzhong (bronze chimes), were unearthed. Guo felt confident that the underground palace must have a whole collection of musical instruments. Besides, Guo guessed that there might be many valuable ancient books in addition to treasures and jewels.

Guess 4: Does the automatic-shooting crossbows function well?
Ancient Chinese tended to bury treasures with them. Not surprisingly, tomb robbery was once rampant throughout the country. To prevent outside invasions, Emperor Qin Shihuang ordered a full range of precautions. It is said that besides poisonous mercury, booby traps with automatically ejected arrows were installed in the tomb chamber to deter would-be robbers. Anyone who dared to break in would certainly die a violent death.

However, all those alleged lethal weapons have been buried under earth for thousands of years. Would they still function adequately now? Most people believe that the crossbows would still shoot arrows if they are triggered. Guo also agreed so after he carefully studied ancient smelting technology recorded in historical books.

In a modern test, a coating of chromate was found on the surface of weapons excavated along with the terracotta warriors. This coating served to make bronze weapons rust-resistant. Thus, it is highly likely that the automatic crossbows may function well even after thousands of years.

Guo speculated that these crossbows were the first automatic burglar-proof devices in the world. "Craftsmen were ordered to fix up these crossbows in such a way so that any thief breaking in would be shot." He quoted a line in Records of the Historian to support his prediction.

Guess 5: Is the corpse of Emperor Qin Shihuang well preserved?

Although it is widely believed that the underground palace has not been disturbed in past years, some people hold the opinion that the emperor's body had putrefied.

According to historical records, the emperor died during an inspection tour. It was summer so the body couldn't be kept for long. In fact, records state that the body had started to stink even before it was carried back to the capital.

In one of his works, Guo pointed out that it is possible the emperor's corpse might be relatively well preserved. He had three reasons supporting his assumption. First, during the Qin era, it was common practice among aristocrats to put mercury in their tombs to prevent corpses from decaying. Second, when the emperor died, all prominent officials were accompanying him, along with an imperial doctor with superb medical skills who was summoned to his deathbed. Third, modern tests on the soil of the tomb mound show unusually high concentrations of mercury. Guo pointed out all these conditions indicate the possibility of preservation for his body.

Guo: All the guesses have to be testified by archeological finds.

At the press conference, Guo's new book, Guesses on the Underground Palace of Qin Mausoleum, was introduced to the public. "When I wrote this book, I consulted scores of famous archeologists via letters, E-mails or face-to-face communications. They all gave me tremendous help." Guo Zhikun said that his assumptions were based on the results of previous research. If they turn out to be correct, the credit should be given to all scholars engaged in this field.

As technology advances, maybe one day we can open the grand palace and discover all the answers to these questions.



Pompeii: Buried Sin City

Imagine living in the richest city of ancient times. Resources are bountiful and life is grand. Every amenity and luxury surrounds you, and unlike in other cities during this time, simple plumbing and convenience is everywhere.

Such was the life for those who lived in Pompeii, Italy in the late part of 70 AD. There was even ancient pornography and gentlemen entertainment, brothel houses to suit every taste.

Those who woke up, began their day, and were sitting down to eat lunch on August 24, 79 AD had no clue that Mount Vesuvius would begin a tyranny of volcanic eruptions that would not stop for 24 hours. It would not spare those who lived in Pompeii, and neither would it spare those in the smaller, nearby towns in Herculaneum and Oplontis. A torrent of lava and ash raced down the massive mountain at 100 mph, burying everyone in its path before they could even react let alone escape.

In an event of biblical proportions. The people's fear, despair and whatever they were doing at that moment was perfectly preserved in ash and hardened lava. This has given archaeologists a perfect time-line of the event as well as a historical look at this ancient culture – a window into the lives of those who lived at that time.

Note how these ash figures are desperately trying to cover their mouths, shield their unborn children, or trying to keep themselves from being crushed by the onslaught of debris and volcanic rocks.

Doctors had their surgical tools clutched in their grasps in the hope of helping others; the "dominas", or women of the house, held on dearly to jewels and heirlooms; and slaves were found with iron rings around their ankles. Such items gave archaeologists valuable insight into who the bodies belonged to and what their shortened lives were about.

The city of Pompeii was for the elite Romans who could afford the seaside life of luxury and fortune. Yet, within hours, this beautiful city was partially buried under masses of volcanic ash, cooling lava and rocks.

Pompeii had aqueducts unheard of in this period of history which channeled the water to 25 city fountains. It had an amphitheater, at least four public baths, many private estates, and numerous businesses that catered to the persnickety tastes of the wealthy who lived there.

The streets of Pompeii resembled many cities around today. There were streets, highways and bustling traffic coming and going all of the time. And the nightlife was second to none.

The people of Pompeii appear to have worshiped a phallic god. Many objects in Pompeii had some erotic symbolism or art work bestowed upon it. Here's a sign outside a Pompeii bakery.

The bakery sign above reads "Hic habitat felicitas", meaning "Here lives happiness" or "Here lives good fortune". The good fortune was believed to be anywhere the phallic god was worshiped and depicted.

At least 20,000 people inhabited Pompeii. The highest point of fortune, activity and population growth was realized at the moment the disaster struck. Near the edge of town, many people lived in villas or small groups of house boats (like palatial gated communities) similar to that of Venice.

Those who lived in Pompeii were quite used to earthquakes and less seismic volcanic eruptions. It was similar to a modern day Los Angeles. The people's houses seemed to ebb and flow with the everyday annoyances of Mother Nature. This was why scientists believe that the majority of people did not flee or seek shelter. They thought this would be like any other day.

In 62 AD, a terrible earthquake transpired that burned the city down to the ground. However, much of the city was rebuilt. Imagine how grand it must have been before that earthquake!

One of the main concerns that those living in the city had was preserving their beloved (and infamous!) art. Scientists were able to recover many of the pieces that had been restored after the earthquake or were from a time period before the deadly eruption.

The reconstruction of the city was hampered by earthquakes that came more and more frequently. Nowadays, we would understand this as being a precursor to a horrific volcanic eruption. They were not aware of this at the time, of course.

Ironically, the eruption occurred after the festival observing the god of fire, Vulcanalia. Scientists believe that the main cause of death for those in Pompeii and the surrounding area was heat and/or ash suffocation. It is estimated that the temperature for at least 10 miles around Mount Vesuvius was 250 °C. Even if people had been in their homes or in a building, there would not have been any way they could have survived heat that excruciatingly high. Worse, the people were buried under as many as twelve layers of soil, up to 82 feet deep in total, which rained down heavily for at least six hours.

The excavation of Pompeii around the turn of the 20th century unearthed many erotic images of over-sized penises, even on the household items. This was so disturbing to those who found these items that they were either destroyed, reburied or locked away in the National Museum of Naples, Italy for over 100 years. The art has only made viewable by the public since 2000, and no minors are permitted to see the items unless an adult accompanies them.

Some, like this writer, speculate that Pompeii was the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, and the destruction of the city was divine and forthcoming. Some Christian tourists often don't visit this wonderful and colorful part of history because of the sexual nature of the ruins.

To be fair, prostitutes in Pompeii made three times more than the average laborer or worker in the city. The sexual acts were particularly cheap for the males (or johns) in this city – in contrast to all other European towns. The inscriptions above the brothel houses, which were quite large and roomy, are too graphic to repeat. Children weren't shielded from the constant imagery of phalluses at the time. In fact, it was common to put depictions of children and phalluses together because of fertility and the phallus god being one and the same.

There was one survivor of the Pompeii volcanic disaster. Pliny the Younger accompanied his father by boat to inspect the plume of volcanic ash coming from the mountain. At this point, no danger or harm ensued, and those in Pompeii had no idea what was about to occur. It had been Pliny and his father's good fortune to see the eruption as it began while bathing on the outskirts of town. Pliny the Younger retold his account of the events that fateful day in writing, watching helplessly as his hometown was quickly engulfed in volcanic debris. Here's a quote from that eerie tale:

"I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it."

The Pompeii disaster of 79 AD was one of the worst days in history. We have a lot to learn about the fragility and short-lasting tenure of humanity.



Top 10 Bloodiest Battles of World War II

From 1939 to 1945, the largest conflict the world has ever known raged on relentlessly. Beginning in Europe, before taking in Asia, Africa, America and the Pacific, World War Two saw over 60 million deaths and countless lives blighted. Bloodshed had never been seen on such a scale before. Even World War I — whose fatalities numbered 35 million — did not witness the same level of sheer destruction, meted out on all sides, throughout the early 1940s. What follows are the bloodiest battles of World War Two — a startling reminder, if one were needed, that war can indeed be hell.

10. Battle of Monte Cassino, 17 January–18 May 1944: 185,000 casualties

Waged between the Allies and the joint German and Italian troops in the early part of 1944, the Battle of Monte Cassino was one of the hardest fought battles of the Second World War. The main objective for the Allied forces fighting their way up from Southern Italy was to break through the Germans’ Gustav Line — a series of military fortifications running across Italy — and gain control of Rome. Named after the 1,400-year-old monastery of Monte Cassino that stood at the center of the German defensive line (and which was controversially destroyed by American bombers during the battle), the fighting was made up of four smaller battles that took place in January, February, March and May, respectively. The eventual capture of Rome came at a high price, with at least 125,000 casualties on all sides — and as many as 185,000 by some estimates.

9. Battle of the Bulge, 16 December 1944–25 January 1945: 186,369 casualties

The Battle of the Bulge — so-called by the British because of the “bulge” in the map where the German forces broke the Allied line — was the last major German offensive on the Western Front of World War II. Also known as the Ardennes Offensive — named after the densely forested area of Belgium, France and Luxembourg — the aim of the operation was to split the Allied troops in two, capture Antwerp in the process, then destroy the remaining Allied forces. Fortunately for the Allies, the battle did not go to plan for the Germans. Despite catching an overconfident and unsuspecting Allied force unawares, superior numbers, timely reinforcements and improving weather conditions (which allowed the Allied air forces to take to the skies) sealed the Germans’ fate. With around 840,000 men committed, it was the largest battle the American Army fought in World War II, as well as among the bloodiest.

8. Battle of Kursk, 5 July–23 August 1943: 257,125–388,000 casualties

A decisive victory for the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front, the Battle of Kursk saw the largest series of armored tank clashes of the entire war and the costliest single day of aerial conflict in history. Having been warned months in advance of the Germans’ intention to eliminate the Kursk “bulge” — created in the aftermath of their devastating defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad — the Red Army was well prepared to take on the Nazis. Through a vast and brilliantly constructed network of minefields, anti-tank guns and defenses 155 miles deep, the Soviets wore down their attackers and then launched counter strikes, hemming the Germans back across a broad front. According to the Soviets, the Germans alone lost 500,000 men — killed, wounded or captured — though other estimates are more conservative. The Soviets went on to liberate most of Ukraine in what was to be a major turning point in the war.

7. Second Battle of Kharkov, 12 May–28 May 1942: 300,000 casualties

Kharkov was a strategically important city in the Ukraine that had seen fierce fighting in the autumn of 1941, when the Germans captured it. The following year the Red Army launched a major offensive to retake the prized city. Unfortunately for the Red Army, the Germans were still very much active in the area and were able to call upon forces to launch a strong defense and counter-offensive. The Germans encircled the three Soviet armies and effectively destroyed them. In a devastatingly effective operation, the Germans wiped out nearly 280,000 Russian men and 650 tanks. A disaster for the Soviets, the Second Battle of Kharkov pressed home the importance of staying on the defensive to the Red Army and inflated the Germans’ confidence — which many saw as playing a part in their downfall on the Eastern Front.

6. Battle of Luzon, 9 January–15 August 1945: 332,330–345,330 casualties

Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, was seen as being of great strategic importance to the United States. Despite General MacArthur’s belief in value of the island, American troops would have to wait until 1945 to launch an attack on Luzon, which was taken by the Japanese in 1942. When the Americans did make it back to Luzon, the fighting — complicated by the Japanese use of the famous kamikaze pilots — was frenzied and fierce, with incredibly high numbers of casualties, particularly for the Japanese. By the 11th of February American troops had captured Manila; however Japanese resistance — from scattered forces making sorties from the mountainous areas of the island — continued for some considerable time afterwards.

5. Battle of France, 10 May–25 June 1940: 469,000 casualties

The Battle of France marked the end of the so-called Phoney War — that strange, uncertain period of the Second World War which saw neither side commit to serious military action — and witnessed the German forces invade France and the Low Countries. Despite similar numbers in their respective forces, the Germans managed to overcome the French, bolstered by the British Expeditionary Force and Belgian and Dutch divisions. This was mainly due to superior German training and communication, and the Allies’ wrongly held belief that the Maginot Line — the heavily fortified French border with Germany — would firstly hold; and secondly, that the Germans would concentrate their efforts on it. In the event, the Germans attacked through Belgium and Holland, thereby rendering the line an expensive mistake. The Germans devastated the inexperienced French (and other Allied) troops and took the entire country soon after.

4. Battle of Narva, 2 February–10 August 1944: 550,000 casualties

The strategically important Estonian county of Narva Isthmus saw ferocious fighting between the German army — bolstered by Estonian conscripts desperate to resist Soviet re-occupation — and Stalin’s Red Army. Both sides were desperate to hold the valuable territory. Separated by historians into two distinct phases (the Battle for Narva Bridgehead and the Battle of Tannenberg Line), the fighting was amongst the most intense seen in the entire war. In the end, after months of terrible combat that left tens of thousands dead — particularly on the side of the Soviets, who suffered at the hands of German counterattacks — Hitler evacuated all troops from Estonia. The country was then largely free until the Soviets reoccupied it shortly after the war ended.

3. Battle of Moscow, 2 October 1941–7 January 1942: 1,000,000 casualties

Soviet Russia’s successful defense of their capital against the German forces who sought to capture it in 1941 was a major turning point in the war. Hitler believed that if he could capture Moscow, the spirit of the Red Army war machine would be crushed and they would be at the Germans’ mercy. However, due to a combination of fierce and strategically well-executed Russian resistance (bolstered by reinforcements from the east) and a terrible winter with temperatures down to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (–30°C) and colder, the Germans were destined not to take Moscow. Losses were massive on both sides. The Soviets suffered at least 650,000 casualties (perhaps many more) while in just twenty days of fighting the Germans are believed to have lost around 155,000 men — a mark of the devastation they suffered here.

2. Battle of Berlin, 16 April–2 May 1945: 1,298,745 casualties

The last major offensive of the war in Europe, the Battle of Berlin saw the fall of the German Army, the suicide of Hitler and the beginning of the end of the Second World War. The inexorable push of the Soviet army westwards saw them advance as much as 25 miles a day before stopping just 35 miles east of the German capital. The Red Army then proceeded to attack the city from the east and south, while a third group devastated German defenses from the north. The relentless Soviet army marched ever onwards, causing widespread panic in the already depleted German defenses (bolstered by inexperienced Hitler youth members) and, following fierce and bloody fighting, took the Reichstag on the 30th of April 1945, more or less signaling the conclusion of the war.

1. Battle of Stalingrad, 23 August 1942–2 February 1943: 1,250,000–1,798,619 casualties

The Battle of Stalingrad, which saw Hitler’s major push for dominance on the Eastern Front, was marked by terrible losses on both sides. The Russians alone had over a million men wounded or killed. Barring their inability to conquer Moscow in the previous year, the war had generally been progressing well for the Germans up until this point, with valuable successes in North Africa and Europe. However, previously unseen brutality and crippling losses devastated the German offensive and severely dented their confidence. Once their Romanian and Italian allies had been eliminated, the Germans found themselves surrounded in Stalingrad, vulnerable and starving in the rubble to which the Luftwaffe had reduced the city. Some would argue that the Germans never fully recovered from this most destructive of battles — one of the bloodiest of all time.



Top 12 Amazing Pictures From 2011’s Last Total Lunar Eclipse

If you were lucky, this morning you may have seen an amazing large red Moon as the Moon fell into Earth’s shadow. West Coast Americans got the best view and the the further east you go the less visible it became. The best views came from Australia and the Pacific Ocean. Luckily, there were plenty of pictures taken. Here are 12 courtesy of Twitter:

And this is a great infographic explaining how the eclipse works.

If you missed it, the next chance to view a partial lunar eclipse is June 04, 2012