Greek Artists May Have Helped Create China's Terracotta Army


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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The sculptures are all 1.83 to 1.95 meters tall (6 to 6.4 feet), depending on their rank. Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock

The Terracotta Army is an 8,000-strong collection of life-size sculptures that have been “keeping guard” of China's first emperor's tomb for more than 2,000 years. Although the work is considered an emblem of the ancient Chinese empire, DNA found at the site is providing more evidence that ancient great civilizations weren’t as independent as once assumed.

Archaeologists have recovered European-specific mitochondrial DNA from the historical site in Xinjiang province, which dates back to the time when the Terracotta army was crafted. Many of the terracotta sculptures of acrobats and the bronze figures of ducks, swans, and cranes at the site also appear to have a distinctively Greek style.


Historians now believe that it’s very likely that Greek sculptors were used to train, inspire, and work with the local Chinese artisans.

"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," said Senior Archaeologist Li Xiuzhen, from the Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum Site Museum, according to the BBC.

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

The Terracotta army was only rediscovered in 1974 by a group of farmers who were digging a well. It consists of three pits and contains an estimated 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses, 150 cavalry horses, as well as several acrobats, strongmen, and musicians. Further study showed the display was part of the tomb for Qin Shi Huang, the emperor of China in 3rd century BCE.


The giant Terracotta Army display is just a small part of a much larger necropolis. Everett - Art/Shutterstock

All of the figures are separately designed and modeled in clay, many with ornate details right down to individualized hair, clothing, and facial features.

“I imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals,” said Lukas Nickel, chair of Asian art history at Vienna University who worked on the project, according to The Guardian.

If Europeans were really living and working in China around this time, it would be nearly 1,500 years before Marco Polo arrived, the first European to extensively document their experiences of China.


Previous archeological work on the Silk Road trade routes has suggested the eastern and western cultures were regularly trading goods and exchanging cultures as early as 200 BCE. However, a cultural exchange of this scale is unheard of for the time.

These discoveries will be shown in two exclusive television programs made by the BBC and National Geographic. For those in the UK, you can watch the documentary The Greatest Tomb on Earth on BBC Two on Sunday, October 16 at 8pm. In the US, the drama-documentary hybrid "China’s Megatomb Revealed" will air on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, October 23.

[H/T: National Geographic]


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