Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Han Emperor's Pig Army

XI'AN   西安  (ancient Chang'anmeaning "Perpetual Peace") is an extraordinary reflection of human endeavor.  By now, we are all familiar with the seemingly endless ranks of terracotta soldiers in the pits surrounding the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi, the "First Emperor."  But how about the smaller-scale Han Dynasty "army" of Emperor Jing Di (ca 188-141 BCE), featuring not only male soldiers, but female courtiers, foreign horsemen, and legions of pigs, sheep, goats, dogs, horses, and the occasional chicken or rooster?!  This was for me one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites I have ever visited,  presented in a spectacular manner unmatched elsewhere.  Located to the west of Emperor Qin's complex, and discovered in 199o during construction of the new highway running to the Xi'an airport, this monumental burial site dating from the Western Han dynasty is in many ways even more interesting to me than its more famous (and bigger) Qin predecessor.  Yet, in order to put the Han Yangling site (as it is called) into context, I need to explain a bit about my visit this April to the "terracotta army" of Emperor Qin.  

Looking at the archaeological heritage of Xi'an provides a lot of opportunity for introspection and reflection.  I've already mentioned my visit to the Banpo Neolithic village, which was a project of the 1950s, and which reveals as much about that era in terms of the interpretive materials and site museum as it does about this important ancient place.  Emperor Qin's army, however, takes up where Banpo leaves off, in more ways than one.  Discovered in 1974, the pits containing the life-sized terracotta soldiers and horses have been under excavation ever since, and thus the site provides a kind of museum of Chinese archaeology and official attitudes over the past 35 years.  Pit 1 (above), expanded from the location of the first finds of the broken soldiers, has been open to the public since 1979, and is covered with a structure resembling in scale and construction a massive airplane hangar.  Here the lighting is bright and powerful, and one is confronted with the reconstructed ranks of the infantry and chariotry.  For most people, this is the "photo op" zone, a place to drink in the massive scale of this ancient project.  

I was intrigued not  only by the soldiers themselves, but by the massive rammed-earth partitions between the individual rectangular zones, which still bear impressions of the logs that were intended to protect the army.  Since, however, these have all caved in with the decay of the ancient wood, all of the terracotta figures (and the other ceramic items that accompanied them) have been smashed.  Just beyond the excavated area is a large portion of Pit 1 that is awaiting future work, as well as an open area where figures under reconstruction may be examined at eye-level (there is also the inevitable red carpeted "VIP" area for those special few!) It was while examining the conservation area that my suspicions were first aroused about the nature of what we see down in Pit 1.  Since all of the figures had been smashed, and were being restored with multiple struts, supports, and a massive amount of plaster, how could the perfect figures aligned in rows down in the pit itself be in such apparently perfect states of preservation?

Moving onto Pit 2, only 20 meters away, a slightly different state of affairs was apparent.  The lighting is low, adjusted to protect the fugitive pigments that began to be revealed in this area. Here, the archaeologists (who have been digging here since 1994) have left much of the broken material in place, and have only "cleaned up" portions of the more than 900 soldiers and 89 chariots.  

At this point, I became quite sure that the reconstructed figures placed back in the pits were modern replicas, although no signage anywhere might indicate this possibility.  Twenty years of observation and the developing techniques of the archaeologists and conservators responsible for Emperor Qin's burial place clearly have made an impact on the way that Pit 2 had been approached, for here figures were revealed with much of their original polychrome paint, which once covered not only their armored bodies, but also their faces, eyes, and even patterns on their clothing (the photo to the left is my poor-quality image of a photograph on display, taken at the moment of discovery).

The much smaller Pit 3, still under excavation, revealed a similarly advanced state of affairs: archaeologists are clearly now working at a much slower rate, and are not attempting to reveal the extent of the army at the expense of the data retrieved, but instead are doing their best to squeeze the maximum amount of information out of every area encountered.  This is as it should be - and it is a very familiar progression to me. After 16 years working on my own excavation, I am more and more eager to derive the maximum data out of each small area, and less willing to sacrifice detail for broad areal coverage.  These are the stresses and conflicts of archaeologists worldwide, and I am very pleased that our Chinese colleagues are making enormous strides forward in the approach to Emperor Qin's army.  That having been said, I am still confused about the apparent policy of placing replicas on site.  

 As I looked closely at examples of actual reconstructed soldiers and horses on display in cases alongside Pit 2, it was very clear that the perfect examples down in the pits were modern.  
Reconstructed soldiers and horses (below)?  Or replicas to increase "visitor experience"?

Even more surprising to me was the huge crowd surrounding the reconstructed half-size bronze chariots found in 1980 (not my photo):

Since these had also been smashed to tiny pieces, the perfect chariots on display seemed to me either to be the most over-restored examples of ancient bronze I have ever seen, or (more likely) replicas intended for public view.  Debates have raged in the course of international loan exhibitions of the terracotta army regarding the potential inauthenticity of the examples sent abroad, and I now believe that the doubt is well-founded.  Conservators can indeed do much to hide joins in reconstructing ceramic vessels and sculpture, but I just don't think that most of what was re-erected and put on display down in the pits was given that kind of attention. More likely, over-cautious attitudes prevailed, and full-size replicas were made on commission for use in display (and, I might add, for sale in the museum shop!) The actual, reconstructed figures are probably those displayed here in glass cases, as well as in the Shaanxi History Museum.  A strange approach, if I am correct, but not one that matters to most visitors, I suspect.  Still, this irregularity (if it is correct) does not and should not take away from the spectacle of one of the most massive ongoing excavations anyone can imagine.  

No comments:

Post a Comment