Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Terracotta Warriors and other archeological digs

To get to the Terracotta Warriors we took public bus 603 to the Xi’an train station – 1 yuan was cheap, but it did stink and people do smoke on it, so really you get what you pay for. At the train station we switched to bus 306, which was much cushier, and only 7 yuan for the hour-long drive to the warriors. Of course on this bus ride we were forced (yes, forced, you can’t turn away, no matter how much you want to) to watch a grown man dig in his nose for a good 20 minutes and drop his findings into the aisle. This is NOT the first time I have seen this. On the plane ride to Xi’an I had the pleasure of sitting next to a man doing the same thing. (He was otherwise quite nice and polite, helping me with my table, smiling, speaking to his son softly, etc.) The greatest thing about this man is that after about 5 minutes of picking he did pull out a tissue – but not to blow his nose. It was to wipe his fingers between digs.

To be honest, I thought I would be disappointed by the warriors but I wasn’t. At the same time, I wasn’t stunned the way everyone said I would be. Probably because they had been so hyped up for me and by me – no fault of the warriors.

Part of my disappointment, I think, is that I had a vision of the warriors being outside, at eye level, and stretching as far as I could see. But of course, that is ridiculous – they would never last in the elements uncovered. Also, the warriors were never above ground. What Jodee and I learned from our on-line research last night and today’s sign reading is that they were built and arranged in underground pits for the Qin dynasty’s first emperor (China’s first emperor). Qin Shi Huang was the first leader to conquer the 6 kingdoms and unify China. He also established a standard script (solving the dialect problem), monetary system, and measurement system; and built extensive road and canal systems. Unfortunately, he was also a tyrant, and worked hundreds of thousands of people to death to realize his visions.

The construction of the warriors began as soon as Qin ascended the throne and lasted until his death, 221-210BC. They were supposed to be his army in the afterlife, and they are arranged in battle formation, as if ready to charge at a moment’s notice. I read somewhere that legend has it the warriors are actually the incarnation of real warriors who were buried alive with the emperor to protect him. That’s probably untrue, but what is true is that the 700,000 laborers that worked on the warriors and Qin’s tomb either died during the project or were buried alive with Qin to protect the secret of the warriors.

Not all of them have been excavated, but they think there were 8,000 warriors in total of different ranks. The warriors are made of fired clay, and are hollow on solid legs (presumably to facilitate free-standing). It is believed they were made from the same handful of molds, and then features were added on to them – the end result is that each figure is unique, which is incredible when you consider the amount of detail they each include. You can see the folds of their sleeves, the pleats of their robes, the scales of their armor, the treads of their shoes (which are hysterical, like ancient loafers), the bows in their hair…

They initially all held weapons, but only very few were found because shortly after Qin’s death his dynasty was overthrown and the pit was looted. The heads were chopped of most of the warriors (many of them remain headless) and the weapons, which were valuable, were taken. The weapons apparently were extremely advanced – I don’t know anything about metallurgy, but the placard in Pit 2 (there are 3 pits that hold the warriors) said chromium was used to plate the Qin weapons, and chrome plating didn’t occur in the West until the 20th century.

What has yet to be uncovered, because archeologists aren’t completely sure where it is, is Qin’s actual tomb. There is a potential site 1.5km away, but burial mounds were often built in incorrect spots to trick looters. It is written in an ancient history (written 100 years after Qin’s death) that his tomb represented heaven and earth: the ceiling is inlaid with pearls as stars and the floor is engraved with a map of the 6 kingdoms Qin ruled over. Rivers of mercury were made to flow through it and it’s well booby-trapped against intruders. The only modern proof of this is high levels of mercury in the ground between the warriors and Li mountain (Lishan) and a mound of earth. THAT would be amazing to see.

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