SOAS University of London

SOAS Qin dynasty specialist says “more mass graves” to come

13 June 2013

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Dr Lukas Nickel, a scholar on the archaeology of China at SOAS, University of London said further excavations of China’s First Emperor’s tomb complex could uncover more mass graves.

This would indicate that the actual human cost of the megalomanic enterprise has not yet been fully revealed.

Sima Qian, who chronicled the Qin Empire period (221 BC - 210 BC) did acknowledge the large number of people involved in building the underground imperial mausoleum. Up to 700’000 forced labourers, convicts and craftsmen were working on the tomb, some of whom are said to have been sealed inside after the emperor had died.

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The terracotta warriors standing in marching formation, waiting for orders from their commander

Another ancient source states that due to the excessive construction projects “corpses in large numbers lined both sides of the streets”. So far, only one graveyard with the bodies of about 120 workers has been found near the tomb. Some were executed while others may have died of natural causes.

Archaeologist Dr Nickel explains DNA tests indicated one of the people buried had a non-Chinese genetic type, leading to speculation that foreigners were involved in the construction of the tomb.

He added: “I have been researching the site for many years and am in close contact with the colleagues working there and visit the site often. What strikes me is that the ‘mass grave’ is actually rather small.

“Contemporary literature tells us that several hundred thousand persons were involved in the works over at least 10 years, so one graveyard with just about 120 workers is very little. Even using normal mortality rates, one should expect thousands to have died on the site. This is why I expect there to be more mass graves, which probably will be discovered in the future.”

A film on early contacts between China and the West called “Terra X – Lost Treasures of the Silk Road” is currently being prepared using one part of Dr Nickel’s theory - that the First Emperor adopted some Greek ideas. The film, produced by StoryHouse production, will be broadcast later this year on Arte and ZDF.

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Dr Lukas Nickel pictured with one of the terracotta soldiers from the Qin Empire period

Dr Nickel is also due to publish an article in BSOAS (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and Africa Studies) later this year.

Dr Nickel’s research focuses on several aspects of the art and archaeology of ancient and medieval China. His current research includes an investigation of the prehistory of the Silk Road, particularly early contacts during the period of the First Emperor of China as well as the study of ancient bronze artefacts and their production methods for which he employs archaeological experiments.

Dr Nickel teaches ‘Archaeology of Early Imperial China’ and ‘Art and Archaeology of the Silk Road’ at SOAS. For more information on History of Art and Archaeology at SOAS visit

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Read the full article on 'Re-discovering China's 'Son of Heaven' on Al Jazeera.