According to sources from a forum held in Xi'an, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau and Qianling Mausoleum Museum had started to prepare for the excavation of the Qianling Mausoleum and this resulted in controversy among archaeologists.
The forum was held to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of the internment of Wu Zetian, the only Empress of China in the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), at the Qianling Mausoleum.
The mausoleum was carved out of a rock on Liangshan Mountain which is six kilometers north of Qianxian County of Shaanxi Province. According to records, the mausoleum is the last resting place of Empress Wu Zetian and her husband Li Zhi, the Emperor Gaozong.
It's said Emperor Gaozong's final words were that his favorite paintings and calligraphy works should be buried with him. The years of the Wu Zetian and Li Zhi reign were the heydays of the Tang Dynasty. Archaeologists believe there are many treasures in the mausoleum which could weigh at least 500 tons.
The most valuable relic, which may well be buried in the Qianling Mausoleum, is the national treasure Lantingxu (Orchid Pavilion Preface), a treasured calligraphy work by China's most famous calligrapher Wang Xizhi.
According to historical records, Tang Emperor Taizong, Li Shimin, ordered in his will that the work should be buried with him, under his head as a pillow. But Zhaoling Mausoleum, which is the tomb of Li Shimin, was plundered by a local governor named Wen Tao in Five Dynasties (907 - 960). However, on the list of his stolen treasures there was no reference to this particular work. So experts concluded that the piece was left to his son, Li Zhi. It's thought to have been eventually placed in Qianling Mausoleum.
Liang Guilin, the curator of the Qianling Mausoleum Museum, said Qianling was the only imperial mausoleum in which an emperor and an empress had been buried that had not been plundered by grave robbers. The mausoleum is the best-protected one in China. Liang emphasized that the excavation was just a proposal and the personal wish of some experts who attended the forum.
Shi Xingbang, chairman of Shaanxi Archaeology Academy, insists that the mausoleum should be excavated. All the relics, skeletons, gold, silver, earthen and wooden artifacts and silk are of significant archaeological value, he said. Although the mausoleum itself was sound, he added, it had been exposed to several earthquakes, and climate change may have affected the environment inside. China's archaeological technology is now at a level where excavated relics could be properly protected, according to him.
Finance is another factor behind calls for the site to be excavated. A local archaeologist suggested that if the mausoleum was excavated and opened as a museum exhibiting relics it could attract as many as five million visitors annually and give the local economy a real boost.
But Su Bai, a professor at Peking University archaeology department, believes that the country should care and protect the history of ancestors. Liu Qingzhu, the leader of the Archaeology Institute under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, supports this point of view. He said conditions underground were stable and exposing the relics to air could cause problems. He suggested they be left where they are.
Shaanxi has applied several times for the permission to excavate the Qianling Mausoleum. The State Council arranged several discussions with experts on the proposals but didn't approve of the site being disturbed.