When The Greatest Tomb on Earth, Secrets of Ancient China (a National Geographic Channel/BBC documentary) was broadcast last year it made headlines worldwide. The media breathlessly announced that new scientific evidence proved that: ‘Western contact with China began 1,500 years before Marco Polo’ and ‘Ancient Greeks may have built China’s famous Terracotta Army’.
In the documentary, Professor Lukas Nickel, Chair of Asian Art History at the University of Vienna and one of the few Western archaeologists who has been allowed to excavate in China, said: ‘I imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals.’ This was hot news indeed – especially as it concerned one of the largest, most fascinating and still mysterious archaeological sites in the world: the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di, China’s first emperor (259–210 BC). Located in Lintong, about 30 kilometres from present-day Xian, it was here that the great army of the famous ‘Terracotta Warriors’ was unearthed in 1974.
But was Nickel’s remark misconstrued? And what can new research show as more excavations are undertaken across the huge untouched area surrounding the tomb mound? These were two of several questions I put to him.
The history of China is surely not one of isolation. Far from being sealed off by the Great Wall in the 3rd century BC, you suggest there is substantial evidence of contact and interaction between China and Central Asia and also with Caucasian people, both before and after its unification by Qin Shi Huang Di in 221 BC.
The perception of China as a culture remote and disconnected from its counterparts in the West is a recent idea stemming from the disengagement of China and the rest of Eurasia, which was brought about mainly by two events during the 15th century. These events were the discovery of the sea route around Africa by Vasco Da Gama in 1497–99, which established direct sea trade between India and Europe, and the decision by the Chinese court to close its borders and to rebuild the Great Wall some decades earlier. Both events brought the traditional overland trade along the Silk Road to a standstill and resulted in a dramatic economic collapse of the Central Asian oasis towns that depended on it. When, during the centuries after, Europeans began to ‘discover’ China they found a country that had sealed itself off and took little part in the lucrative long-distance trade that was once a core part of the Asian economies and that had existed as far back as the Bronze Age.
Didn’t media reports that Classical Greek craftsmen worked at the court of China’s first emperor in the 3rd century BC give a false impression?
Yes. In this context, ‘Greek’ does not mean the Classical homeland but rather Greek-Hellenistic, from the Graeco-Bactrian and Sogdian kingdoms [250–125 BC] in modern day Afghanistan and Uzbekistan [which were conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC]. Sculpture made in Greek fashion using Greek technologies was produced in many Central Asian workshops at the time. The craftsmen who brought the idea to China may not have been Greek at all but they were certainly craftsmen trained in the Hellenistic artistic tradition. The most obvious evidence that the Chinese had access to Greek skills and expertise in the 3rd century BC is the sudden occurrence of large statuary in public and funerary monuments built for Qin Shi Huang Di.
Several tombs of Qin princes dating from the 6th to 3rd centuries BC have been excavated. While their size, their architecture, with tomb mounds and access ramps, and much of their equipment clearly indicate that they are the predecessors of the first emperor´s tomb, not a single one of them contained any sculpture. Yet nearly every pit excavated around the first emperor’s mausoleum contains realistic figures of men and animals.
These sculptures differ totally from Chinese artistic traditions, especially the so-called ‘acrobats’ with their realistic rendering that comes very close to what had been made in Hellenistic sculpture workshops all across Asia at the time. It is too much of a coincidence to believe that the Chinese developed the same idea as their Western neighbours independently. I believe that it is much more likely that a sculpture workshop from Hellenistic Central Asia had migrated to China to offer their skills to the most affluent culture in the East.
In the documentary, evidence of Chinese interaction with Greek culture is presented as threefold. First, there is the fashioning of terracotta statuary where there was no tradition of life-size naturalistic sculpture in the round before the 3rd century BC. Secondly, the use of lost wax techniques to create exquisite bronze objects, which were also previously unknown in China. Thirdly, the presence of non-Chinese people was proven by DNA tests on skeletons buried at a site in north-western China. Is all of this correct?
Yes, the sudden appearance of realistic terracotta sculpture is the most obvious indicator for cross-cultural communication, but the bronze birds, figures and carriages found in the tomb are even more telling. Yet it would be an over-simplification to say that Greeks introduced lost wax casting to China, just because vessels of the 5th and 4th centuries BC have been found there that were cast using models of wax or other perishable materials.
However, German research undertaken in the early 2000s, and more recent Chinese research, show that the bronze figures found at the tomb site were made with a highly advanced type of lost wax-casting closely comparable to bronze figure-casting in Greece and Rome. Even the complicated repair technique seems to be identical.
It is possible to copy the outer appearance of works of art that were brought to China, perhaps as trade goods, but it is not possible to master a technology by just looking at a sample. It needs specialists at hand and direct communication to learn such a complex technology. The bronze sculptures found here require us to accept that experts trained in the Greek tradition must have been present in China.
Another telling piece of this jigsaw puzzle is the discovery that Qin craftsmen began to copy silverware with lobed decoration during the 3rd century BC. Silver plates with lobed decoration were widely used as prestigious tableware in the Achaemenid and later the Hellenistic world, and they were also given as diplomatic presents. Chinese craftsmen began to fashion vessels with this exotic decoration precisely during the reign of the first emperor, indicating that they had access to Western luxury vessels.
Although the DNA results from Xinjiang in the far northwest of modern China received much press coverage, archaeologists have long known that people with Caucasian features – light skin, blue eyes and blonde or brown hair – lived in the Tarim Basin [in north-west China] since the early 2nd millennium BC. The ‘Tarim Mummies’ found there have provided ample evidence of this. These people would have spoken an early Indo-European language that survived well into the Middle Ages.
There seems to be an astonishing diversity in the highly individual faces of the warriors – many of them have non-Chinese, Central Asian or even Persian features. Can you comment on this?
There is indeed a visible attempt to make the warriors look like individual soldiers. Faces were pre-shaped in perhaps eight standard moulds, but then re-worked and finished with moustaches, eyebrows and an individual hair style to give the impression of actual people standing in the tomb. Some of the faces have high nose-ridges and beards that make them look ‘un-Chinese’. This comes as no surprise as we know from historical sources that the emperor employed many people of non-Han ethnicities in his army.
Can you tell us more about your interpretation of the Chinese texts that describe a dozen giant bronze statues, which might relate to the 12 gods of the Greek pantheon?
While artefacts strongly point towards continuous exchange and inspiration across cultural borders, historical records do not contain any reference to such a direct contact. In this context my discovery of an early reference to sculpture-making under the First Emperor is significant. The Shiji, the first Chinese dynastic history, which was written about a century after the death of the emperor, reports that in 221 BC, the year in which he had finished the conquests and established the empire, the emperor learned about 12 giant figures found at the Western fringes of his realm.
According to the text, the figures were dressed in a foreign manner. He regarded them as an auspicious omen and had them copied in bronze using the melted-down weapons of the armies he had beaten. He displayed the sculptures in front of his palace. This record is important since it links the first sculptures the emperor had made to the Far West, and show that he also used public sculpture that conveyed a political message in the same way as Alexander did a century earlier.
Can modern technology – remote sensing, ground-penetrating radar, core-sampling – tell us what is inside the emperor’s tomb and also if the adjacent tombs of relatives or even the First Emperor’s tomb itself, were ever looted?
Radar investigations have revealed a high concentration of mercury under the mound of the actual tomb. This is often presented as support for the information from the Shiji that the chamber contained a landscape map with rivers and seas made of mercury that was kept flowing like actual rivers by some secret machinery. Some Chinese and Australian scholars even claimed that the mercury traces could be pieced together to form the outlines of a ‘map of China’.
Without doing any actual excavation this will remain speculative. Ancient Chinese tombs were often painted with cinnabar, a sulphide of mercury, that may leave the same traces as the ‘mercury seas’. Still, the discovery of a high concentration of mercury provides other information.
Some records mention the looting of the tomb quite soon after the emperor’s death in 210 BC. If looters had indeed dug tunnels into the chamber one would expect the mercury to have evaporated over time.
The current mercury concentration makes me hope that the looters were not successful, and much of the inner chamber and its contents may still be preserved.
Chinese archaeologists found a huge block of stone in a nearby river. What does it tell us about the building methods that were used to construct the inner chamber of the emperor’s tomb?
Historical records report that the main chamber of the tomb was built of stone. This is surprising as the tombs of earlier Chinese rulers usually had wooden chambers inside. These texts were, however, corroborated by the chance find of a stone block in a river-bed northwest of the emperor’s tomb. This regular rectangular, finely-cut block has three inscriptions that give its precise position in the chamber. It had fallen off a boat transporting the building material to the tomb.
Do you have a clear picture of the overall plan of the emperor’s tomb complex and what it contained?
No, we still do not have a precise understanding of the general plan of this enormous structure. Excavations have been patchy because strict rules about the protection of cultural heritage do not allow archaeologists to dig freely. Still, excavations of a tomb of the 4th century BC brought to light a bronze plate with an engraved plan of its structure. It is quite clear that Chinese architects used maps that would allow them to design structures of such a vast size. Equally revealing were investigations using ground-penetrating radar that gave an impression of the extent of one of the emperor’s palaces not far from the capital.
You investigated a cache of Buddhist sculptures in Qingzhou which were exhibited in Return of the Buddha at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich and at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 2002. Do you plan to excavate again in China?
Following the exhibition, I organised the excavation of a second Buddhist temple near Qingzhou. This was one of the very few excavations ever carried out jointly by European and Chinese researchers and, to my knowledge, its Chinese-English report, The White Dragon Temple in Linqu, is the only fully bi-lingual excavation report published in China so far. I hope it will promote Buddhist archaeology in China, which is still an underdeveloped research field.
At the moment I am examining the material culture of the Qin empire to see if there is still more evidence of a Western presence in China at the time. If there were craftsmen of Central Asian or European origin working at the tomb site, they should have left more traces than simply the sculptures and the casting technology.
THIS ARTICLE IS FROM 2017 - THE EXHIBITION IS NO LONGER RUNNING. Age of Empires, Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties is on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2017/age-of-empires) from 3 April to 16 July 2017. Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor is on show at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle (pacificsciencecenter.org), 8 April until 4 September, and at Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (fi.edu) 30 September to 4 March 2018.