Ever tried a 3-D jigsaw puzzle? I have, once. It was 250 pieces, stood 30 centimetres tall, and was an absolute pain in the arse. Imagine then, trying to complete several thousand of them. When each individual is itself in thousands of pieces, when all of these pieces are jumbled together, when many of the pieces are missing, and when you’ve no idea what any of the models are supposed to look like once they’re complete. Oh yeah, and when the whole of the jigsaw and it’s millions of constituent parts have been buried beneath the earth for two thousand years.
This is the task faced by those who’s job it was to reassemble the Terracotta Warriors.
They call the discovery of the Terracotta Army a ‘Wonder of the World’, but for me the real wonder isn’t the statues, it’s that a team of workers actually managed to reconstruct the damn things. A feat so painstaking and meticulous that given the choice between joining this workforce, and assembling a clockwork watch on slippery bouncy-castle occupied by eighty-seven caffeine high bonobos, I’d honestly choose the latter.
The Terracotta Army is one of China’s most famous sites, even the shortest of whistle-stop package tours to the Middle Kingdom will include a day in Xi’an to see the infamous warriors. Despite this, I was actually into my third year of living in China before I found myself visiting. And even then, only courtesy of our Viking River tour.
The brief then, in brief. Discovered less than 50 years ago, the site contains upwards of 8000 life-sized statues of soldiers, plus over 600 horses and chariots. All buried in the ground to act as the afterlife bodyguards of the first Emperor of China, in about 200 BCE. Each of the statues is unique; with different facial features, hair, clothes and equipment, so that no two are alike.
The museum has three of the pits open for public viewing, plus a selection of the most impressive or interesting figures dotted around in glass display cabinets. We were lucky enough to have our Viking guide on hand to explain the artefacts and the history of their creation and rediscovery, but for those without, there are plenty of signs in English, if occasionally curiously worded English.
In each of the pits the warriors are standing in their battle formations, so you can see the ranks of infantry and archers, with cavalry to the sides and commanders to the rear. It doesn’t take much more than a gentle squint of the eyes to convince yourself that you’re looking down on a real life army of thousands. And the none-too-gentle pushing and shoving from the hordes of Chinese tourists could easily persuade you that you’re right there fighting in the vanguard.
Yeah, that’s an aspect of it. It’s a popular place, and nobody does crowds like the Chinese. Even though the walkways are huge and surround the entire pits, certain areas offer better views than others, and if you hope to get yourself and your camera to the front in one of the prime locations, expect a melee. Umbrellas and selfie-sticks are the halberds of this engagement, and pushchairs the battering rams. Go to it, soldiers! And the luck of the Gods be with you!
Or you could walk 15 metres to the left and have an unobstructed view, but where’s the fun in that?
“So what’s this about reconstruction anyway? Weren’t they just found like that?”
No, they weren’t. When placed in the ground, the soldiers were whole, painted, upright and arranged in to orderly battle formations, and probably would have remained that way, but for a fatal error on the part of the designers. Though the figures and their clothes were made of terracotta, they were actually each equipped with authentic and functional weapons.
Thus, when a farmers’ uprising broke out in the region less than a generation later, and the impoverished field-hands found themselves fending off the royal troops with naught but sticks and gardening implements, some among them evidently remembered that just a few feet beneath the fields in which they toiled, were thousands upon thousands of perfectly serviceable swords, bows and spears from the Emperors personal armoury.
The site was plundered for it’s valuable weaponry, and the farmers presumably took the opportunity to take out a little frustration on their foes’ porcelain likenesses. The end result is that, even after 40 years of excavation, only a single one of these warriors was found in anything approaching it’s original condition.
So if you visit, while you’re admiring the incredible beauty and details of the Terracotta Army, and marvelling at the amazing skill of the army of ancient Chinese (*or Greek, see after) craftsmen who first sculpted them, spare a thought for the less discussed army, the one that came 2200 years later. The army of chaps with soft brushes and dirty aprons, who dug up a field of shattered pottery, and left behind a Wonder of the World.
Normally, this is where I’d leave you. But today, there’s something else to mention.
You see, the Terracotta Warriors are merely the guardians. Like the stone lions perched at the gate of some classical temple. But what kind of site could require such numerous and elaborate watchmen? Well, herein lies a very interesting and exciting mystery, one that I feel would be far more celebrated, if only more people knew of it.
The guards are there to protect the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. There are many stories about this tomb, some from historical records, others legends passed down over the centuries. The stories speak of a vast underground complex, with palaces, and all the treasure and relics of an empire buried here, not to mention mechanical traps and devices worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure. A well-known contemporary account describes rivers of mercury representing the hundred rivers and the sea, all being set to flow mechanically. This same account describes how the workers, the Emperors’ concubines, and all of the craftsmen who might know the secrets of the tombs many traps, being sealed inside to die.
In fact, if all accounts of the tomb are to be believed, the place would eclipse any other archaeological find I can imagine. Tutankhamen’s tomb would pale in comparison, indeed a recent study (and I do mean recent, it was published just last week!) estimates the size of the tomb complex to be 200 times the size of Egypt’s ‘Valley of the Kings’. And all of it, untouched.
You heard me. As far as experts and history can determine, the tomb has never been opened. No subsequent kings, no excavations, no grave robbers, and no whip wielding heroes in fedora hats have ever seen the inside of this mausoleum.
Why? You might ask. Well actually, it’s an astonishing display of restraint on the part of the Chinese government, it seems. They know it’s there, they know what incredible treasure it might hold, and they know what cultural and scientific value it’s excavation could have. They also know, that they might just make a hash of it, and they’d only get one chance.
When the terracotta army was first uncovered, the scientists were unable to prevent their paint from oxidizing when exposed to the air, so all of their colours were lost. They are unwilling to make the same mistake again, and have refused to allow any exploration of the site until they are 100% sure that their scientific know-how is up to the job of ensuring that everything can be preserved perfectly.
Very noble and highly commendable. Though I do wish they’d get a wriggle on. Now that I’ve read about the place and seen it from the outside, I won’t be able to go to my grave in peace without knowing what the hell is really in there.
Of course, it could be that nothing of interest is down there. All of those old stories could be just that; stories. But there are a few bits of hard evidence besides the records that give some credibility; in 2000 a large subterranean dam and drainage system were discovered, clearly intended to prevent the underground mausoleum from flooding (and it’s discoverers report that it’s still functional and the tomb should be dry), and secondly, unusually high levels of mercury have been found in soil samples from all around the site.
I love a good mystery, though I’ve always been a greater fan of the big reveal. All I need now is a hat, a doctorate in archaeology, a couple of billion in bribes for the government, and a shovel. Who’s with me?
* Greek, yes. If you’ve missed that story in the news this week, substantial evidence has just come to light that the ancient Greeks were here 1500 years before the supposed first contact between Europe and China. The matter is still being debated, and likely will be for years to come, but there is certainly a strong suggestion that these ancient Greeks had a hand in the creation of the Terracotta Warriors. How about that? They could have taken the time to introduce Tzatziki while they were at it.
Did you enjoy that post? Then share it on Pinterest!