Revealing the enduring mysteries surrounding thousands of terra-cotta warriors.
In 1974, after an ancient terra-cotta army was unearthed in northwest China, archaeologists embarked on increasingly sophisticated excavations, uncovering a huge mausoleum built for Qin Shihuang (259-210 B.C.E.), known as China’s first emperor. Its existence, recognized since his death 2,200 years ago, has generated many “legends and rumors” still not resolved even by technologically advanced archaeological research. Offering an up-to-date overview of archaeological findings, Burman (China and Iran: Parallel History, Future Threat? 2009, etc.), the only foreign trustee of the Xi’an City Wall Heritage Foundation, relates the historical context for the construction of the mausoleum and investigates questions about the emperor’s personality, rule, and legacy; prevailing assumptions about the afterlife and efforts at attaining immortality (including burial in a shroud of jade, a material with purported magical powers); and the much-debated role of the warriors. The sprawling mausoleum, writes the author, “was conceived on a scale more massive than any other monument at that stage of human history.” Although archaeologists have identified three main precincts—the pit containing the warriors, the burial chamber and other rooms inside the inner wall, and the surrounding area beyond the wall—much of the structure, lying beneath villages, factories, and roads, remains unknown. The burial site, Burman asserts, “was first and foremost to be conceived as a home,” which for the emperor meant a palace, including a temple and residences for imperial officials and concubines—where, in the afterlife, “the dead would need their favourite objects, as well as things of value, in the other world.” The warriors pose a puzzle: Besides speculating on their function in the mausoleum, scholars question “where the knowledge and inspiration for these lifelike figures came from,” since only miniature statues had been found in earlier tombs and since kilns at the time were too small to fire sculpture of such stature. Based on evidence of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in Asia, some scholars suggest that cultural exchange existed between Greece and China.
A well-informed examination of ongoing efforts to understand the past.