New Evidence Suggests Ancient Greeks Inspired China’s Terracotta Army

October 13, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

terracotta army
Photo credit: I. Staudacher/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Archaeologists propose Greek artists may have trained the local craftsmen who designed thousands of terracotta warriors.

In 1974, farmers digging a well in northwest China uncovered an army of more than 8,000 life-sized terracotta soldiers, horses, and chariots buried over two millennia ago near the tomb of Quin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.

Compared to other soldier statues that have been found in the region, the terracotta soldiers guarding the emperor’s tomb are stylistically unique. They are astonishingly life-like, and the soldiers bear strikingly individual features. As National Geographic reports, their uniqueness has led some to question what inspired the royal artists who designed these sculptures.

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A new theory posits that the Terracotta Army was influenced by the arrival of ancient Greek statues in China. It has even been proposed that Greek artists trained the emperor’s craftsmen in person.

A genetic study has shown European-specific mitochondrial DNA from skeletons at sites throughout China’s Xinjiang Province, which suggests that Westerners were in the region prior to, and during, the first emperor’s reign. Excavations of his tomb have also revealed other terracotta figures that display distinctly Greek influence, according to National Geographic.

“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,” says Li Xiuzhen, a senior archaeologist at the site.

“We now think the Terracotta Army, the acrobats and the bronze sculptures found on site, have been inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art.”

With remote sensing, ground-penetrating radar, archaeologists have discovered that the emperor’s tomb is much larger than previously thought. It contains not only the emperor’s remains, but also those of the craftsmen and laborers who created the Terracotta Army.

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