Jade disc for 1500 BC

Important topics of archaeological research include the study of: the vestiges of prehistoric earthquakes; how the ancients buried their dead; the search for the cities of the mythical pre-Xia rulers Yao and Shun; the discovery and decipherment of the Shang Dynastys oracle bone script; the bronze casting techniques of Chinas ancient civilizations; the whereabouts of the palace foundations of the Qin Dynastys Epang Palace; the profound influence that Cao Caos city, Ye, had on the development of other imperial capital cities in ancient China; ancient craniotomies; and how archaeologists are able to analyze eating patterns and diets in ancient times. [Source: Exhibition Archaeological China was held at the Capital Museum in Beijing in July 2010]

The Institute of Archaeology is the main archaeological organization in China. Early large-scale excavations of archaeological sites such as Banpo and Miaodigou allowed archaeologists to gradually establish a timeline for the development of Neolithic cultures across China. Among the technologies is use today in modern archaeological research are GPS satellites, digital photogrammetry, 3D laser scanners, remote sensing and ground-penetrating radar in archaeology. Research methods include spatial information archaeological surveys, dating methods, environmental archaeology, physical anthropology, zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, chemical and structural analysis, dendrochronological dating of trees and timber, and isotope analysis.

Describing work at an archaeological site in Henan Province that held the remains of a Shang Dynasty port that once sat on the Yellow River, Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: “At the excavation, a team of 20 local farmers had cleared a pit about 15 feet deep and 30 feet square. They continued to attack the cold ground with shovels and brushes as we walked through the site. Some of the women stood in the mud wearing heeled dress shoes and others gripped shovels with gloveless hands. Their pay, according to the archaeologist, was low but adequate for rural China. The urge to raid a site is easy to understand.A successful tomb raider can make a year’s salary in one night. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology magazine, July-August 2013]

Archaeology and the Study of Artifacts in China

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Ancient artifacts that have been excavated and rediscovered have attracted much attention from scholars ever since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The investigation of ancient works of art grew increasingly prevalent, becoming so popular that it reached a peak during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) periods. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei]

“The act of revivalism is a way of going back in history, and it is also an opportunity to gain a better understanding of and rapport with advanced elements of the distant past. Those who were fond of antiquity went to no expense to recreate a living environment of "archaic elegance". As a result, be it a scholar searching for a refined and classical lifestyle, or an aristocrat or merchant trying to take on the airs of lofty archaism, all had a special passion for objects and vessels that simulated and suggested the forms and styles of the ancient past. With the demands created by such a market, great numbers of archaistic works of art were produced everywhere. Ancient bronze vessels were widely imitated in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Since the first forays of Chinese archaeology in the 1920s, with time out for foreign invasions, civil wars, and the insanity of the late 1960s Cultural Revolution, Chinese archaeologists have engaged in a frenzied search for the past. Their digs have uncovered scores of primitive cultures that occupied various sites in China between the early Neolithic and the birth of the Bronze Age, about 1500 B.C. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The study of the great variety of these cultures is useful in highlighting the basic fact that the people of ancient China represented a complex ethnic mix, quite different from the picture that later texts portray of the gradual evolution and embellishment of a monolithic cultural entity, emerging from the time of the Yellow Emperor and maturing under the sage kings and Three Dynasties (Xia, Shang, and Zhou). /+/

“Of course, the questions that scholars of ancient China would like to see answered by the silent artifacts of the past are, “Where did ‘Chinese’ culture come from, and what are the connections between the late legendary accounts and the ‘truth?’“ But contemporary scholars also recognize that to ask the questions in such a way would be misleading: there is no consensus as to what counts as “Chinese culture,” and we are far from sharing a simple account of what constitutes historical truth. /+/

Finding Artifacts in China

The large numbers of construction projects all across China in recent years have helped archaeologists unearth all kinds of things. An art historian told the New York Times, “It is almost impossible to dig anywhere in China without finding something: even if you have a little plot of land behind your house you can't do gardening without this stuff spilling out." There are laws in place in many places that require builders to allow archaeologists to check for ancient remains before a factory or building can be built. Few developers go along with rules.

So many great treasures are being unearthed in China that the China Daily News ran the headline "Just Another Wonder" when some excellent Tang dynasty bronzes were unearthed near Xian and perfectly preserved string and percussion instruments from a nearly whole 5th century B.C. orchestra were discovered.

Ancient tombs have traditionally been an important source of artifacts and information. Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Thousands of early archaeological sites have been excavated in China, most of them graves.... For periods before writing, surviving artifacts offer a crucial corrective to legend and myth. Moreover, even after writing was invented, for many centuries the types of texts that survive are very limited, so that there is still a great deal to learn from artifacts. Scientifically excavated objects can be placed more accurately in time and place than early texts, which often went through a process of accretion over time, with many passages added later.[Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington,]

Many priceless items have been lost by negligence and ignorance. Farmers have destroyed priceless 2,000-year-old Han lyres and flutes because they had "inauspicious" tiger motifs on them and pig keepers have destroyed ancient tombs by using the bricks from mausoleums to make pig sties.

Discovery of Oracle Bones and the Shang Dynasty

Li Ji, famous Shang archeaologist

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “In 1899, China was in chaos. Four years earlier, it had been stunned by Japan, which had virtually annihilated the Chinese navy in a single day, aided by their Chinese opponents, whose first cannon shot of the war landed squarely on their own commanding admiral. The political uproar that followed this unmasking of China’s weakness had led to a program of ambitious reform, adopted by a young emperor who daringly gave power to a party of radically progressive Confucians. But the leaders of that party were killed or driven into exile by a coup led by the aging Empress Dowager, and the young emperor was banished to an island prison within the imperial palace grounds in Beijing, where he awaited his eventual death by poison. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In the midst of this turmoil, Wang Yirong, a mid-level official who had recently come out of a period of filial retirement in honor of his mother’s death, arrived in Beijing seeking to revive his career and help pull his country out of its desperate trials. Wang was well known as a scholar of ancient script and antiquities, but prior to his mother’s death he had become a political activist as well, raising troops in his home region to help strengthen China against its wealth of foreign adversaries. Upon his arrival in Beijing, Wang secured an appointment as libationer at the Imperial Academy, and he was seeking to use this scholarly position as a means of conveying his patriotic ideas to the Empress Dowager. Then he suddenly fell ill with malaria. It was through Wang Yirong’s illness that the history of the Shang Dynasty was discovered. /+/

“Earlier that year, a small waterway near the city of Anyang called the River Huan had flooded. The flood had worn away portions of the riverbank near the little village of Xiaotun, and when the peasantry went to clean up the damage, they found that a quantity of old buried bones had been laid bare. It was not unusual for old bones to turn up in this area, and over the years local people had come to believe that these bones had magic medicinal properties. Upon occasion, some of these bones had been observed to have mysterious symbols carved in them, and though no one could understand just what they were, these inscribed bones were known to work wonders on a fever if ground up and added to more standard prescriptions. They became known as “dragon bones,” this name reflecting their auspicious properties. /+/

“An enterprising merchant named Fan Weiqing had discovered that the reputation of these bones from eastern Shanxi Province had spread widely, and he had speculated that it would be profitable to transport them to distant places for sale to the local apothecaries. By cultivating his contacts with local farmers, Fan had become the foremost dealer in the magic bones, but he was always careful to conceal from potential competitors the source of his goods. Now, in 1899, the flood near Xiaotun yielded his biggest shipment of merchandise ever, and he hurried his goods to Beijing for sale. /+/

“As Wang Yirong’s fever grew worse, he decided to send a member of his household to consult an apothecary and purchase the appropriate medicine. Among the items that the apothecary prescribed was a packet of Dr. Fan’s Fresh Dragon Bones, ready for grinding. On the day that the bones were delivered, Wang was enjoying the company of a house guest, Liu E, a reform-minded Confucian official of great energy who was, like Wang, a fine antiquarian scholar (and the most famous Chinese novelist of his day).When Wang and Liu spotted these bones, they were instantly struck by the resemblance between the carved signs on them and some of the ancient script forms they both had studied in the past. Although they could not decipher the etchings they were convinced that they were Chinese characters, and of a form so ancient that they had never before been recorded. /+/

Early Shang Dynasty Archaeology

During the Boxer Rebellion Period, Dr. Eno wrote: "the dragon bones came into the sole possession of Liu E. Liu was an influential man of considerable wealth and erudition, and he committed himself to finding the source of the bones. He traced them back to Fan Weiqing, but there he met the obstacle of the monopolist’s fear of competition. Fan refused to tell him where the bones came from. In time he relented and did tell Liu, but he was careful to lie. Liu found himself wandering fruitlessly in sections of Shanxi far distant from Anyang. Commercial instincts finally triumphed. Liu E offered money to any who would deliver bones to him, and as word of this spread, it eventually reached the ears of the peasants of Xiaotun. Liu at last found himself inundated with inscribed bones – many inscribed as recently as the night before sale. As his scholarly eye began to pick out the genuine samples from the forgeries, the clues to their source at Anyang began to emerge.” /+/

Shang bronze

“It was not until 1910 that scholars finally arrived at the village of Xiaotun in search of inscribed bones. Although Liu E collected thousands of bone fragments and began the systematic recording and study of their inscriptions, he died in 1909 without ever having pinpointed their source. He had, however, excited a host of young scholars who were anxious to begin work on the puzzle of the bones, and once they knew where to find them, they made massive buying expeditions to the Anyang area, enriching many poor families and carrying away with them thousands of bone fragments, many less than an inch in length. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Liu’s disciples were interested only in the writing on the bones, and did not think to ask what more might exist at the Xiaotun site. Archaeology had not yet been introduced as a science in China, and there was no notion that valuable information about the past could be recovered by systematically digging in the ground. Moreover, this first wave of scholars arrived on the eve of China’s nationalist revolution, and for the next decade and a half, China was immersed in civil wars that made travel for scholarly purposes nearly impossible. /+/

“Oddly enough, although these scholars had in their hands the first solid data ever collected on the Shang Dynasty, during the years of civil war, other scholars began, for the first time, to question the historicity of the Shang. During the first years after the 1911 Republican Revolution, the intellectual class of China reacted violently against the Confucian ideas of the past, and the influence of Western scholarship swept through all currents of thought. Critical history seemed to many intellectuals to offer great promise for loosening the hold of old Confucian attitudes. Scholars quickly learned to detect the factual baselessness of the Yellow Emperor, Yao, and Shun, and in the 1920s they began to question the historicity of the Xia and Shang Dynasties. The annals of these eras appeared in the “Shiji”, the earliest and apparently most reliable of the great Chinese histories, but the accounts there merely consisted of a barren list of kings with tales interspersed that in many ways resembled little more than a projection of Zhou Dynasty stories into the distant past. /+/

“At Beijing University, two new schools of ancient Chinese studies emerged simultaneously. One was devoted to the deciphering of the bones of Xiaotun – who knew what their writings recorded? The other was devoted to the debunking of the legendary past, including the existence of the Shang. Scholars worked on both these projects simultaneously, without awareness of the contradiction.” /+/

Archaeology at Yin Xu (Xiaotun, Anyang)

Dr. Eno wrote: “In the 1920s, the “Shiji” story of the Shang Dynasty seemed to the newly critical young historians of China to be filled with improbabilities. Xie’s miraculous birth suspiciously resembled the birth of Prince Millet, the founder of the Zhou line. The account of Tang the Successful’s conquest of the wicked Jie seemed to be no more than a recycling to an earlier time frame of the story of the conquest of Zhòu, the last Shang king, by the founders of the Zhou Dynasty. The regency of Yi Yin resembled the role of the Duke of Zhou. The long lists of featureless Shang kings, who seem to do little more than move their capitals, appeared to be only unimaginative filler highlighting the few passages of ethical drama that are the literary core of the Shang annals. Surely, the entire notion of a dynasty predating the Zhou was a fictional one, a tale fabricated during the middle years of the Zhou to give pedigree to the theory of the Mandate of Heaven and to provide the Zhou founders with a moral tale to explain precisely why their descendants deserved to rule. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In 1928, just after the close of the civil wars that had for over a decade hampered further exploration of the Anyang area, a group of young scholars trained in the “new” science of archaeology traveled to the village of Xiaotun to see where the dragon bones had come from, and decide whether it would be fruitful to test their skills in excavations at neighboring sites. Casual digging near Xiaotun convinced them that the supply of dragon bones had not been exhausted, and they began what became a nine-year archaeological dig that ended permanently all speculation that the Shang Dynasty was a fictional construct. /+/

“Soon after they began work, the Xiaotun archaeological team began to uncover ruined foundations of great antiquity. Their density was consistent with a city of substantial size. Then, among the foundations, floor plans of enormous dimensions were discovered, the ruins of great palaces or ceremonial structures. There could be no doubt: Xiaotun was the site of an ancient city of royal scale. /+/

“When archaeologists crossed north of the River Huan, their findings were even more surprising. There they uncovered huge cruciform tombs with subterranean chambers up to forty feet deep and fifty feet on a side – tomb excavations the size of a large four-storey building. The floors and ramps of these graves were littered with skeletal remains of dogs and sheep, of horses whose bones lay beside chariot to which they had clearly been yoked at the time of their burial. And these remains were not limited to animals. Side chambers of these palatial tombs were stocked with human skeletons, many decapitated with their heads buried together in a group apart from their bodies. In many cases the central chambers of these tombs had long since been looted, and the grave masters’ remains were no longer in evidence. But other graves were still intact, and some of these were filled with enormous caches of richly ornamented ritual vessels of bronze, jades, and other luxury goods which lay packed around the central corpse. The archaeologists had found the cemetery of the kings and queens of the Shang. The village of Xiaotun had, as Liu E and his followers had guessed, been built over the ruins of the last capital of the Shang Dynasty.” /+/

Archaeology of the Early Shang Period

oracle bone pit

Yuan Guangkuo wrote in “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology”: “Much information about the early Shang period has been uncovered from excavations during the past several years. Important sites from several different regions dating to four subphases have been discovered. Most fieldwork has taken place at large sites interpreted as cities, judging from the presence of rammed-earth walls. In particular, extensive fieldwork has taken place at the well-preserved city of Yanshi and the large city of Zhengzhou. It has been possible to identify key changes in settlement patterns over time and variation in the functions of sites. Both the settlement data and excavated graves reveal a highly stratified society. The economic system and artistic expression were well developed, demonstrating that the early Shang period was an essential foundation for the late Shang period that followed. [Source: “Discovery and Study of the Early Shang Culture” by Yuan Guangkuo, A Companion to Chinese Archaeology, Edited by Anne P. Underhill, Blackwell Publishing, 2013 / ~|~]

“The late Shang culture was identified from excavations at Yinxu (“Ruins of Yin”), Anyang, northern Henan province, in the 1920s. Later on, archaeologists found evidence at other sites for earlier phases of the Shang culture. The early Shang culture also is referred to as the Erligang culture, because it was first found at Erligang in the modern Zhengzhou city district (see Henan Team 1959). In 1955, An Jinhuai, the main discoverer of the early Shang walled city of Zhengzhou – also located within the modern Zhengzhou city district – found a 6,960 meters long rammed-earth wall that surrounded a city thought to be approximately 300 hectares in area at the time (Henan Provincial 2001 : 1–3). Now it is understood that the Erligang site is part of the large Zhengzhou site, and the Zhengzhou site is even larger than previously thought. Since that discovery, the excavation and study of early Shang culture have entered a new era. This chapter describes recent information about the identification of phases for the early Shang period, regional settlement patterns, the functions of settlements, social stratification, craft production, and evidence for symbolic communication. ~|~

“A number of early Shang settlements have been found, primarily in Henan, Hubei, and Shanxi provinces. In November 2010 there was another important discovery, the city site around 37 hectares in size at Wangjinglou, 35 kilometers to the south of modern Zhengzhou city. The remains of a gate and a road were found in the southern part of the eastern wall, which is regarded as the one of the largest and most complete city gates found in China (Xinhua 2011). ~|~

“Knowledge gained from excavation of the Erligang site caused archaeologists such as Zou Heng (1956) to propose that the site of Zhengzhou might be earlier than Yinxu at Anyang and therefore could represent the origin of Yinxu culture. With increasing archaeological investigation, the structure and layout of the Zhengzhou site became more clearly understood. Then scholars began to discuss the nature of the settlement of Zhengzhou. In 1961, An Jinhuai published an influential paper (1961) proposing that Zhengzhou was the Shang capital referred to as “Ao.” ~|~

An’s paper was important, because it was the first scholarly effort focusing on the nature of archaeological remains to address the issue of linking particular sites to names of settlements in historical records. He suggested that Zhengzhou Shang city, in terms of date and position, should be regarded as a Shang capital known from a variety of historical documents as Ao du (capital Ao) where the Shang king Zhong Ding lived (An 1961). ~|~

“In 1978, Zou Heng published a key paper arguing instead that the site of Zhengzhou was a Shang capital called Bo. He also proposed that the Shang city of Zhengzhou was built as the capital called Bo yi by Cheng Tang, regarded as the founding king of the Shang on the basis of textual data (Zou 1978). This is the well-known “Zheng Bo” theory. There is another theory called the “West Bo” theory which suggests instead that the ancient capital Bo should be located closer to the Erlitou site.

The discovery of the Shang city at Yanshi in 1983 provided new evidence for the study of early Shang culture. Yanshi is similar to the early Shang city of Zhengzhou chronologically, yet close to the Erlitou site geographically (about 5–6 kilometers away), so it became a new candidate for the capital that later documents called “West Bo,” or the western Shang capital. The debate about which site is the real West Bo has become a major archaeological issue. Another theory is that there was instead a “double capital” during the early Shang period. The nature of this debate, which continues to be important in Shang archaeology, centers on how to confirm the identification of settlements with archaeological remains. ~|~

“Research on the early Shang period has included a number of topics such as determining the chronology of sites, understanding internal settlement structure, determining the functions of sites, and reconstructing building techniques. In addition there has been research on the origin of Shang culture, and the relationship between early Shang culture and other archaeological cultures in neighboring regions. ~|~

“Due to an intense focus on excavation of individual Shang cities, however, more research is needed to address other issues.

Discovery of the Terracotta Army

colored terra-cotta soldiers

Archaeologists were stunned when the terra-cotta soldiers were discovered in the spring of 1974. Unlike Emperor Qin's tomb there was no written records of the terra-cotta army. When archaeologists arrived, they discovered some terra-cotta heads in the home of an old woman who had placed the heads on an altar and worshiped them as gods. The archaeologists had no idea either of the magnitude of what had been discovered. They expected only to stay for a few weeks. More than 40 years later, they still here uncovering new stuff.

Two men in Xian claim to be the first man to unearth the terra-cotta man. Yang Quanyi, works at a tourist shop with a sign "The Man Who Discovered the Terra-Cotta Warriors," and maintains he was discovered even though he offers few details. Yang Zhifa says he was part of a crew digging a well during a drought. After digging six feet into the ground, he said, he hit sometime hard. "At first I thought I had hit a brick," he told the New York Times. "But when I scraped away the dirt, it was the length of a full body." Today, According to the China Daily, the hoe he used that day is framed and hanging proudly on the wall of his sitting room.

For Sun Shengan, the hundreds of life-size terra-cotta warriors are impressive, but sad. “Look carefully at their faces, and you will see each is different,” Mr. Sun, a former government employee now working as a private guide, told the New York Times “not a single one looks happy. Perhaps because they were too oppressed,” nodding meaningfully. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, December 28, 2011]

Most of the terracotta figures and chariots were found broken, their once-vibrant colors scorched, washed away or muted by time. Excavation continues and to date, over 1,000 figures have been reassembled, now protected by overhead, warehouse-like structures.

Many of the six-foot statues of famous Terracotta Army remain buried. The museum has restored and displayed about 1,200 of the estimated 6,000 warriors in Pit 1. The soldiers stand on well-baked pottery bricks sturdy enough to sustain the figures, which weigh an average of 200 kilos each. A wooden ceiling that once sheltered the warriors rotted away hundreds of years ago, along with the large beams that supported it and the rammed earth that was laid on top. "All the wooden sections have been reduced to dust. by the grind of time, " Pan Ying, 28, a museum guide, told the China Daily, pointing to impressions left in the earth by the wheels of long-gone wooden chariots, and the undulating earth that avalanched into the pit when the rafters gave way, completely covering many of the terracotta figures. [Source: Lu Hongyan and Zhao Xu, China Daily, October 31, 2014]

Zhao Kangmin: the Archaeologist Who Uncovered the Terra Cotta Army

Archaeologist Zhao Kangmin (1936-2018) has been called the “Man Who Uncovered the Terra Cotta Army”. He wasn’t one of the farmers who found terra cotta soldiers in his fields but was Chinese archaeologist who identified them and understood their significance. Sasha Ingber of NPR wrote: “Zhao Kangmin first laid eyes on fragments of terra cotta warriors in 1974. Farmers some 20 miles from China's central city of Xi'an were digging a well and struck into the pieces. They had no idea what they had found — an army that had been interred for more than 2,000 years to guard China's first emperor. [Source: Sasha Ingber, NPR, May 20, 2018]

“The farmers contacted Chinese authorities, who sent out government archaeologists, reported National Geographic. "Because we were so excited, we rode on our bicycles so fast it felt as if we were flying," Zhao reportedly stated. The archaeologist found heads, torsos and limbs. He began to reconstruct a figure, piece by piece. Each warrior was life-sized, with a different face and expression, and details that were realistic down to the fingernails. Eventually more archaeologists would uncover standing and kneeling archers, infantrymen, armored officers and chariots with horses.

“At the time, Zhao grew nervous about the warrior he was restoring, according to historian John Man who wrote The Terra Cotta Army. He was "nervous that he might be swept up again by the madness of the Cultural Revolution, whose teenage Red Guards had forced him to criticize himself for being involved with old things and therefore encouraging the revival of feudalism."

“Farmers have since sued the government for recognition of the discovery. But Zhao didn't think they necessarily deserved credit. "The farmers saw the terracotta fragments, but they didn't know they were cultural relics, and they even broke them," he told China Daily in 2009. "It was me who stopped the damage, collected the fragments and reconstructed the first terracotta warrior." The publication reported that even after he retired from his role as curator at a museum in Xi'an, Zhao would go the museum every day and sit beside four terra cotta soldiers and a horse that he had reconstructed in the '70s. “In that display room, he would write autographs that read, "Zhao Kangmin, the first discoverer, restorer, appreciator, name-giver and excavator of the terracotta warriors."”

Reconstructing the Terra-Cotta Soldiers and Fakes

soldier in its original color

Workers at the terra-cotta museum workshop have attempted to duplicate the production techniques used to make the figures. Modern copies of the soldiers can be produced from molds made from the original statues and speckled with mud so they look as if they have just been dug out of the ground. The people who make them claim they are just as good as the real thing.

There have also been attempts to produce fake terracotta warriors are pass them off as the real things. There was even an attempt to steer tourists to a fake terra cotta army. In 2017, the BBC reported: “Police in central China have raided a tourist attraction which they say was tricking people into visiting a fake terracotta army. The site is in the Lintong district of Xi'an, the same area as the real Terracotta Army, which guards Emperor Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum. Forty statues were destroyed in the operation after an online complaint prompted local officials to take action, the official Xinhua news agency reports. [Source: BBC News, January 12, 2017]

“Lintong council's Weibo account shared photos of the raid, including an image of the statues' remnants after they were smashed to pieces. A local official told Xinhua that unlicensed guides and illegal taxis were used to draw tourists to the site. Anyone visiting the site might have been slightly underwhelmed at seeing a few dozen warriors. The real Terracotta Army is more than 2,000 years old and contains thousands of statues - mainly soldiers but also horses and chariots - which were made to protect the emperor in the afterlife.

Archaeological Work That Yielded the Colors of Emperor’s Qin’s Terra-Cotta Army

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “The last excavation in Pit 1 screeched to a halt in 1985 after a worker stole a warrior’s head and was summarily executed—a head for a head, as it were. In the long hiatus that followed, Chinese researchers worked with experts from the Bavarian State Conservation Office in Germany to develop a preservative known as PEG to help save the warriors’ colors. During the recent excavation, the moment a painted artifact was unearthed, workers sprayed any bit of exposed color with the solution, then wrapped it in plastic to keep in the protective moisture. The most colorful pieces (and the earth surrounding them) have been removed to an on-site laboratory for further treatment. To everyone’s delight, the modern techniques for preserving ancient colors seem to be working. [Source: Brook Larmer. National Geographic, June 2012 *]

“In a narrow trench on the north side of Pit 1, archaeologist Shen Maosheng leads me past what look like terra-cotta backpacks strewn across the reddish soil. They are, in fact, clay quivers still bristling with bronze arrows. Shen and I skirt the remnants of a freshly excavated chariot, then stop beside a plastic sheet. “Want to see a real find?” he asks. Lifting the sheet, Shen unveils a jagged, three-foot-long shield. The wood has rotted away, but the shield’s delicate design and brilliant reds, greens, and whites are imprinted on the earth. A few steps away is an intact military drum whose leather surface has left another glorious pattern on the dirt, its crimson lines as fine as human hair. Together with the imprints of finely woven silk and linen textiles also found here, these artifacts offer clues about the artistic culture that flourished under the Qin dynasty and the vibrant palette that infused it. /*/

“With so much color and artistry imprinted on the soil—the ancient paint, alas, adheres to dirt more readily than to lacquer—Chinese preservationists are now trying to preserve the earth itself. “We are treating the earth as an artifact,” says Rong Bo, the museum’s head chemist, who helped develop a binding agent, now under patent, that holds the soil together so the color won’t be lost. The next challenge, Rong says, will be to find an acceptable method for reapplying this color to the warriors. /*/

“With less than one percent of the vast tomb complex excavated so far, it may take centuries to uncover all that remains hidden. But the pace of discovery is quickening. In 2011 the museum launched two long-term excavation projects on the flanks of the 250-foot-high central burial mound. Exploratory digs in this area a decade ago uncovered a group of terra-cotta acrobats and strong men. More extensive excavations will yield “mind-boggling discoveries,” predicts Wu Yongqi, the museum’s director.” /*/

Piecing Together the Terra-Cotta Soldiers

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “In an earthen pit in central China, under what used to be their village’s persimmon orchard, three middle-aged women are hunched over an ancient jigsaw puzzle. Yang Rongrong, a cheerful 57-year-old with a pageboy haircut, turns over a jagged piece in her callused hands and fits it into the perfect spot. The other women laugh and murmur their approval, as if enjoying an afternoon amusement in their village near the city of Xian. What Yang and her friends are doing, in fact, is piecing together the 2,200-year-old mystery of the terra-cotta army, part of the celebrated (and still dimly understood) burial complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di. [Source: Brook Larmer. National Geographic, June 2012 *]

“It usually takes Yang and her co-workers many days to transform a heap of clay fragments into a full-size warrior, but today they are lucky, accomplishing the task in a matter of hours. “I have no special talent,” insists Yang, who has been solving such puzzles since 1974, when farmers from her village of Xiyang first unearthed pottery and a sculpted head while digging a well for their orchard. “But nearly every warrior here has passed through my hands.” Having helped reassemble an army of a thousand warriors, Yang contemplates today’s final piece: a clay head sheathed in protective plastic. Visible through the wrap are flashes of pink and red, brilliant hues that hint at the original glory of the terra-cotta warriors. *\

“Down in Pit 1, Yang tightens the straps that hold her reconstructed warrior together. His head, still wrapped in plastic, is beaded with moisture. His lifelike pigment has been preserved, and his body will go on display at the museum with all of the cracks and fissures he received during his 2,200 years underground. In the early days of the Xian excavations, the fractures and imperfections of the terra-cotta warriors were plastered over. Now, reflecting the evolution of the museum’s views on historical accuracy, a new army is forming on the pit’s west end, cracks and all. In every statue Yang’s handiwork is plainly visible. “It’s nothing special,” she says with a modest smile. And with that, she and her village friends get back to work, piecing together the puzzle beneath the roots of their old persimmon trees.” *\

Robbing the Graves of Qin Shi Huangdi’s Ancestors

In November 2010, Tom Peck wrote in The Independent, “Nine people have been arrested in China after grave robbers targeted the tombs of the ancestors of the country's first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The intrusion was discovered on 8 October, when a routine patrol by guards from the Cultural Relics Bureau discovered traces of new earth on top of a mud seal that blocks the entrance to the tombs at the ancient capital of Xi'an, where China's earliest leaders are buried. The bureau keeps watch over the graves, which archaeologists lack the resources to excavate properly. [Source: Tom Peck, The Independent, November 26, 2010]

“Hacksaws and mobile phone covers were also found nearby. Police were called after another patrol 12 days later found walkie-talkies near the entrance. They found a hole measuring 70 cm by 50 cm opening into a 36-meter-long tunnel in which had been left disposable gloves, ropes and plastic pipes, apparently used as rudimentary breathing apparatus.”

“Video cameras lowered into the hole revealed the coffins of the ancient Chinese royals had been smashed open. The nine suspects arrested by police confessed to using dynamite to blast the tunnel into the tomb. They said they encountered evidence that it had been looted in the past and were concerned the roof would collapse. Only when their boss raised their wages did they agree to continue.”

“The grave robbers were so well-equipped they had laid electricity cables along the tunnel and installed fans to pump air into the tomb. Local newspapers said a single relic had been recovered, but gave no details. Other reports said nothing had been found. The suspects denied taking anything from the tomb where King Zhuangxiang and Lady Zhao, his concubine, are believed to have been buried. News of the robbery at such a major tomb was deemed so serious that there was a ban on any reporting while officials carried out their investigations.”

Zhuangxiang ruled one of many small states and died in 246BC at the age of 35 after a three-year reign. His son was Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. The incident has led to calls for the graves to be officially excavated, removing the temptation for grave robbers. In the past several years treasures have been stolen from ancient burial sites that are poorly guarded. The theft has also intensified calls for the group of tombs, discovered in 1986 and covering 24 square kilometers, to be resealed.

Looting of Chinese Art

20111121-asia news CHINA_CHRISTIES_AUCTION.jpg
auction selling Summer Palace heads

Looting is a serious problem in China. Looters have ravaged ancient tombs and archaeological sites, taking priceless relics, armor, weapons, porcelain, bronzes, silk and ornaments. In many cases the looting is done by farmers, construction workers and criminal gangs. Many farmers have turned to looting because they make so little money from farming, their living expenses are high and looting presents an opportunity to make a lot of money quick that is hard to resist. According to one peasant saying: "To be rich dig up an ancient tomb; to make a fortune open a coffin." Evidence of looting is founded in the flashy clothes and nice homes owned by former peasant farmers.

Auctions, antique fairs and art galleries are filled with looted works. It is estimated that 80 percent to 90 percent of the Chinese art sold on the international market was somehow illegally obtained. Beginning around 1980, a stream of bronzes, ceramics and jades from Neolithic times to the 14th century began pouring into Western markets via Hong Kong. The objects originated on the mainland and most likely were looted from tombs. Over the years the amount of this kind of art available on the market has increased dramatically.

The looted articles are usually taken to Hong Kong, where they are given fake histories and documentation. Much of the valuable stuff ends up at antique shops and galleries in Hong Kong or auction houses and top galleries in the United States, Europe and Japan. In Hong Kong it is possible to buy Tang celedons, Ming bowls, even 2000-year-old terra-cotta and neolithic figures. It is widely believed that items are smuggled out the country with the help of bribed local- and high-level government officials.

By some estimates 300,000 to 400,000 ancient Chinese tombs have been raided in China between 1980 and 2005 and 220,000 tombs were broken into between 1998 and 2003. Looting is particularly big problem around Xian, the home of the terra-cotta army and other archaeological sites, and the city of Luoyang, the capital of at least nine dynasties. These areas are littered with imperial tombs that are mostly unguarded and easy pickings for looters.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Terra Cotta Army, Ohio State University; Louis Perrochon

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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