Was the famed Terracotta Army of ancient China inspired by Greek art?


Researchers have recently put forth their (controversial) hypothesis that the renowned Terracotta Army comprising more than 8,000 sculpted warriors may have been inspired by ancient Greek art. Known for their eternal ‘watchfulness’ over China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb for over 2,000 years, the so-named Terracotta Army not only has its silent soldiers but also comprises chariots, horses and even non-military figures like officials, acrobats and musicians. But this time around beyond scale and variety, archaeologists were surprised by the DNA remains found in the expansive necropolis site east of Xi’an in Shaanxi province. And according to this team (partially composed of members from Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum), the amazing life-like details of the soldiers were possibly influenced by Greek art. Now traversing the sensational scope, this hypothesis alludes to how the East and West had sufficient contact centuries before the arrival of Marco Polo in China.

Now from the historical perspective the Xi’an terracotta pit is not the only complex boasting military figures in China, but these other sculptural feats tend to be more smaller and stylized in nature. Furthermore, as the BBC post makes it clear, there was no clear tradition of building life-size figures with ‘realistic’ details in China before the construction of Qin Shi Huang’s massive tomb, and even since then.

As for the circumstantial evidence that fueled the hypothesis of Greek influence on these terracotta figures, the researchers (from various global institutions) working on the Xi’an site have salvaged traces of European mitochondrial DNA from skeletons buried in proximity. Their ambitious project entailed the use of state-of-the-art technologies like remote sensing, ground-penetrating radar and core sampling – for locating the inconspicuous sections of the funerary complex.


In any case, this surprising discovery hints at the possible scenario where ancient Westerners settled and died in the area, just before the reign of Qin Shihuang (circa 3rd century BC). Moreover, on comparing the art style of the non-military figures inside the tomb complex, like the terracotta acrobats and bronze-made ducks and swans, the archaeologists found out that they bore similarity to ancient Greek figures of the same contemporary time-period. Li Xiuzhen, a senior archaeologist at the Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, said (to BBC) –

We now have evidence that close contact existed between the first emperor’s China and the West before the formal opening of the Silk Road. This is far earlier than we formerly thought.

Coming to the practical side of affairs, there could have been a scenario where Greek trainers and travelers taught the local artisans their foreign styles. But of course beyond circumstantial evidences and hypothetical situations, there is the entire historical context to consider. Simply put, the researchers obviously have to come up with more credible clues and information, as opposed to just speculations, to bolster their controversial theory.

And lastly, we must understand that in some ways this fascinating research scope has already shed new light into the ambit of European presence in China’s history. In other words, while previously mainstream theories suggested that Marco Polo was (probably) among the first Europeans to make contact with the Chinese, the evidence of European DNA in the realm dating from circa 3rd century BC pretty much disproves any such conventional notion. Now as for the connection between the Greeks and the Terracotta Army, we have to wait for future updates on the research and the related peer-reviewed journals.


Copyright Rhea Wolvekamp

In case you are interested, the findings of the investigation will be aired in the documentary, The Greatest Tomb on Earth, made by the collaborative effort of BBC and National Geographic – to be screened in the later part of the month.

Via: The Guardian

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