Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Tuesday 15th October - Terracotta Army

Around about the same time that I was being born, in the spring of '74 a farmer named Yang Xinman and a couple of his buddies were digging a well in a field that he leased from the state in small village in Shaanxi  province. Though interesting bits of terracotta had been had been unearthed in this vicinity for many years, and old rumours of troves persisted, what Mr Yang discovered that day lead to perhaps the greatest archeological discovery of the century. He firstly retrieved a life sized head of a warrior. How much more they uncovered before reporting it to the state I do not know, but there are now reckoned to be 8000 warriors at this site, the size of several football pitches, and many more in two other pits within a few metres. Cavalry men, foot soldiers, archers and generals, even life-sized clay horses pulling (now rotted) wood and bronze chariots. 

Mr Yang was rewarded with about a month's wages for his fortuitous discovery that has utterly changed this land and brought presidents and paupers flocking from all around the world. The village that was once his home and the neighbours who lived there have now been relocated, and replaced by hangar sized structures surrounded by hundreds of tat-pedlars hawking replica figurines, dog skin rugs and other such must-have paramemorabilia.

And yet, this really is breathtaking. What a find! This kneeling archer, one of the first to be uncovered, was intact, surviving the earthquake that turned many of his cohorts into crock. Crock that a legion of archaeology students are now gluing back together, hopefully in the right order.

Of the two most deadly earthquakes in history, the second, in Haiti in January last year killed 316,000 poor souls, and many in that already deprived island are still suffering wretchedly. [See Giles Clarke's powerful photography www.gilesnclarke.com/haiti.] But in January 1556 Shaanxi province was utterly destroyed by a huge earthquake, that is reckoned to have ended the lives of 830,000 people, crushed in their mud-built homes. Outside Xi'an, and already hidden 3m underground, the great earthquake caused the timber ceiling to collapse bringing chaos to the silent terracotta army and their steeds. 

Pit no.1, the first to be discovered, vast and with plenty still to be uncovered.

In the bottom right, a red arrow points to the site where Mr Yang chose to sink his well, an extremely propitious decision, right by one of the walled-up ancient entrances to the army. The army was installed several meters below ground level to be hidden, and all mention of its construction was eradicated from contemporary accounts by the emperor, concerned about the looting that inevitably followed. Not only that, but he also buried alive several thousand of the workforce to maintain that secrecy. Nice chap.

And here is Yang Xinman himself, who is no longer a farmer, but a signer of books, and whose discovery has brought him much fame. The fortune has gone elsewhere.

That is not a normal hill, under it may well be the world's next great archaeological discovery. Buried under here is the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Kuang, who became the first emperor of a unifed China in about 200BC. It's a couple of km from his terracotta army. Surveys have been done, and probes sent in, but excavation has not yet begun. They are stalling to allow our technology to improve before they do so. Apparently the Emperor consumed mercury, in the belief it would make him divine. This misapprehension might explain the paradox that although clay warriors would suffice as an afterlife army, he had buried with him all of his real human concubines. Wouldn't terracotta concubines have sufficed? Or why not bury the human army too? I've surely missed something in his poisoned theology.

Anyway, this tomb took a workforce of 700,000 nearly 40 years to build, and the remote probes indicate levels of Hg vastly higher than normal, giving some credence to stories told of artificial rivers flowing with Mercury. Not only that, but the whole interior is supposedly rigged with ingenious booby-traps to thwart any future raiders. This really is Indiana Jones territory, I for one can't wait for them to open it up and go inside. You first! No you, I insist...

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