Friday, August 20, 2010

Day 18. The Terracotta Army

Today could be seen under two lights: the slow and anti-climatic view of the straight tourist, or the awe-struck view of the student of antiquity. I will have to combine the two in a single narrative, which may make for some contradictory statements, but so is life.

We could have attempted to visit the foothills of the Li Mountain on our own, but this time it seemed more expeditious to book a tour. So the day started late, with pickup at 9 am, lazy stroll to the other youth hostel (which is about ten times larger than ours), sit and wait, wait and sit, and finally we got started at 10:30 am. Traffic was fierce, so our driver chose to take a shortcut through less savory parts of town, and it was not until 11:30 am that we got to the site of the Neolithic village of Banpo.

Banpo was occupied in the middle of the period that Chinese archaeologists refer to as the Matriarchal period (7,000 to 5,000 BC). It is a particularly interesting site because one can see the actual surface excavated by the archeologists, on which it is easy to recognize the foundations of at least three different types of dwellings, cooking pits, and the moat that once protected the whole village (a monumental piece of engineering a good 6 meters deep and about 1,000 m long). Ah, if only Uri were here to witness all these wonders! Within the village there were also a significant number of burials and utilitarian pottery.

The next stop was at a handcrafts shop, with the excuse that they would explain to us the way in which the terracotta warriors were made. They actually did a good job at describing the process of molding and firing, which was no small feat given that the statues are life size. The trick was to fire them in parts, to later put the parts together. We learned two important facts: First, the warriors had been painted in bright colors. Unfortunately very little of the color remains today, so they look instead black due to the fact that they were fired in reducing wood fires. Second, four years after the death of emperor Qin Shi Huang Dhi (pronounce the first word Chin), a rival warlord got into the mausoleum complex and smashed each one of the estimated 10,000 statutes (actually, he missed one, so there must had been 10,001 statues). This latter piece of intelligence really shocked me. I though they had found the whole army intact, “standing frozen” as a guard of honor to emperor Qin. Instead I learn that what you see today is the patient labor of hundreds of archaeologists, who so far have only reconstructed 10% of the whole army.

Illumination comes at a price, however, and for the little lecture we had to go through a gauntlet of sales people that were trying to sell us everything from a full-size terracotta warrior (I was tempted . . . it would look so nice guarding the library) to lacquered furniture and silk rugs.

The next stop really annoyed me (I tell this in the order in which enlightment came to me). We had booked a visit to the mausoleum of emperor Qin, and instead we were driven to this Las Vegas type of building, where 30 years ago government artists had built a model of the mausoleum, together with little figures milling around the streets. It was a very large model (say 50 by 100 m), and clearly they had put on a lot of detail, but it was not the site I had expected to visit! Our guide gave us some bullshit about the government having decreed 50 years ago that no one was to enter the site, because archaeological technology was not advanced enough to cope with the proper excavation and preservation of the site. I now wish I had put more attention to the model, because in fact it was built with as much archeological information as was available at the time. For example, the scale of 1:100 was as accurate as they could get it, so that means the mausoleum was about 5 km by 10 km in area. 50 square kilometers! That is half of the size of Teotihuacan! Fortunately I noticed, on the periphery of the outer wall of the complex, the miniature representation of the elongated pits filled with row after row of terracotta warriors, and from that got the idea that the warriors were but a small part of the mausoleum. The mausoleum itself had an outer and an inner wall, with lots of small structures scattered through, and a central dominant artificial mountain 100 m high. I believe the mountain was just a decorative feature.

Anyway, still upset for what I considered an underhanded switch I barely turned my head when the guide pointed out a small mountain in the distance, and mentioned that it was the central artificial mountain of the mausoleum complex. Had I been thinking clearly I would have used this central point to draw on the landscape the possible footprint of the complex.

So finally we made it to the site of the terracotta army, where all of China had decided to congregate. We dutifully followed the throng to the exhibition halls, and in reverence entered the hall of Pit 1, where most of the reconstructed warriors are exhibited. The “pit” is immense and the rows of warriors and their horses seem interminable. However, the reconstructed statues occupy only about 10% of the excavation area. Behind them you can see the “work in progress”, which are jumbles of fragments of soldiers and horses that are being patiently put together by an army of archaeologists. What a monumental project! And yet, the whole professional life of some of these archeologists is going to be to put together a dozen statues. It seemed to me a job that is at once sublime and extremely limited in scope.

I was musing about this as I walked through Pits 2 and 3, which are nowhere as impressive as Pit 1, when everything clicked together as I walked through the Exhibition Hall, which is a museum of “the other stuff” that has been recovered from the mausoleum. Now, remember that in the model the warriors were but a peripheral feature of the 50 square kilometers site, and that there were a lot of other features and structures within the site. “The other stuff” are materials that have been recovered from exploratory excavations elsewhere within those 50 square kilometers, and the magnificence and variety of the artifacts is but a taste of the information that remains to be recovered.

I came out of the hall and stared at the foothills of the Li Mountains. Out there, 5 kilometers distant, I could see the artificial mountain that marked the center of the site. All of a sudden the throngs of tourists became so many Qin dynasty people, milling around and building what will no doubt earn the title of Eight Wonder of the Ancient World. Yes, the terracotta army is magnificent in its own right, but what will be found over the next 100 years of archeological work baffles the imagination. This is a unique opportunity of seeing a site at the very initial stages of exploration, and to an old archeology buff like me is a thrill to contemplate the possibilities.

The ride back to the hotel was slow and full of traffic, but I enjoyed the chance to mull quietly on what I had seen, both factually and figuratively. I just wish I could have a second look at that model.

Back at home Luke went in the search of girls (that boy has some punch with the fair sex, and because he looks much older than he really is he comes up with really cute co-eds), and I went to the supermarket. Yes, wherever I go I enjoy going to the supermarket to see what they have for sale. It is a way of confirming that yes, I could live here if need be. So I pushed my little cart through the wines (I bought some Great Wall wine that turned out to be pretty good, and got a corkscrew as a present from an obliging employee), the meats (they have chorizo and patitas de puerco!), the fish (wonderful variety), the veggies and fruits, the spices, and the sauces, to name but a few, and ended with 80 yuan worth of merchandise that somehow I will have to eat over the next three days.

Finally, to wrap a very full day, I had a foot massage, that Lucienne had recommended as being very special. Actually it was a little brutal, but I was happy enough to make an appointment for a lower back massage and acupuncture tomorrow evening. Why not? After all, I don’t come every day to China :)

P.S. I forgot to make some historical remarks about emperor Qin Shi Huang Dhi. He is remembered as the first emperor of the whole of China, and gained this distinction at the end of the Warring Period (500 to 221 BC), when his state (the Qin state) defeated the other major state in southern China. For the fist time, then, most of the territory now known as China was under a single ruler. Now, you don’t get to be top dog by being a nice guy, and emperor Qin was no exception to this rule. With a fist of iron he imposed on the whole land the Qin script (and to do that burnt any books written in any other script, and buried alive all scholars that could have rewritten the burnt texts), the Qin coins (round and with a square hole in the middle, rather than the spade or knife-shaped coins used in other states), the Qin distance between cart wheels, and the Qin everything. He started working on his mausoleum even before he became emperor of all China, and was buried in it around 207 BC. With his death the Qin empire started to fragment, and four years later the country was once again a mess of warring factions. Remember that one of these warlords took it upon himself to destroy the terracotta army outside of the mausoleum walls (nobody has any idea if he got inside the mausoleum itself).

1 comment:

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