The high point of my travels in the past year was my first visit to Xi’an to see the famous terracotta army. I’d expected to be somewhere between impressed and overwhelmed. My response was roughly half-way in between. I was in a bit of a daze, trying to focus on the individual members of the army, while being distracted by the ranks upon ranks of warriors. Were they all different? Perhaps. There were several different facial types, but very small changes are often sufficient to make faces look different. I looked closely at some sections and came to the conclusion that it is possible that several figures could be based on the same model. You can see an example in the group whose photograph is above.
The terracotta army was breath-taking, but it was not the epiphany.
The epiphany came as I walked around the huge pit and came to the portion where the restoration is going on. Suddenly I realized that the figures were not dug out of the ground whole. They were a jumble, and many were shattered into pieces. It is the painstaking work of an army of modern archaeologists which is piecing them together. In the photo above you can see one of these warriors being reconstructed. Until then my lazy impression was that India has its Taj Mahal, China its terracotta army. I understood that the differences are enormous: the Taj Mahal and the Forbidden Palace are complete artefacts which only need care. The terracotta army needs to be reconstructed. In that moment of epiphany I realized the truth: China has created technical expertise to actively restore its past glory.
The Family continues to make unkind jokes about my eclectic dining habits. In Xi’an we saw this newly uncovered horse which has still not been pieced together. The Family said "This must be the rest of the donkey you ate for lunch".
Over the last two decades everyone with any interest in travel has become aware of the terracotta army of Xi’an. It is estimated that about 6000 life-size figures were buried, and about 2000 are on display in various places. What I didn’t realize before going to see them is how difficult the process of unearthing them has been. Below you see a photo of one group which is being slowly disinterred. Some time between their construction in 250 BCE and their discovery in 1974, the roof beams had collapsed and mud flowed into the pits. Today the pits are being dug out very slowly, so that the army is not further damaged while being disinterred.
You can see places where the work has progressed further: a jigsaw of body parts lie together in a jumble, waiting to be pieced together. I guess each figure must lead to the thesis work of an archaeology student doing his doctoral work. When you see the numbers of statues in various stages of being pieced together, you realize that there must be an army of archaeologists at work, along with students and post-doctoral fellows. This must be a really thriving branch of modern Chinese archaeology.
You can see some statues which are almost at the last stages of being pieced together. A careful look reveals the painstaking solution to a massive jigsaw puzzle. I wonder what happens at the last stage, where one goes from this cracked piece of pottery to the lifelike figures which are most familiar to the world at large.
Whatever the process, I think these archaeologists are the new warriors of Xi’an. And they have a task no other army has ever done before: to bring back to life a forgotten and buried army.