This story appears in the June 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In an earthen pit in central China, under what used to be their village’s persimmon orchard, three middle-aged women are hunched over an ancient jigsaw puzzle. Yang Rongrong, a cheerful 57-year-old with a pageboy haircut, turns over a jagged piece in her callused hands and fits it into the perfect spot. The other women laugh and murmur their approval, as if enjoying an afternoon amusement in their village near the city of Xian. What Yang and her friends are doing, in fact, is piecing together the 2,200-year-old mystery of the terra-cotta army, part of the celebrated (and still dimly understood) burial complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di.
It usually takes Yang and her co-workers many days to transform a heap of clay fragments into a full-size warrior, but today they are lucky, accomplishing the task in a matter of hours. “I have no special talent,” insists Yang, who has been solving such puzzles since 1974, when farmers from her village of Xiyang first unearthed pottery and a sculpted head while digging a well for their orchard. “But nearly every warrior here has passed through my hands.” Having helped reassemble an army of a thousand warriors, Yang contemplates today’s final piece: a clay head sheathed in protective plastic. Visible through the wrap are flashes of pink and red, brilliant hues that hint at the original glory of the terra-cotta warriors.
The monochrome figures that visitors to Xian’s terra-cotta army museum see today actually began as the multicolored fantasy of a ruler whose grandiose ambitions extended beyond the mortal realm. The first emperor to unify China under a single dynasty, Qin Shi Huang Di packed a lot into his earthly reign, from 221 to 210 B.C.Aside from building the first lengths of the Great Wall, the tyrannical reformer standardized the nation’s writing system, currency, and measurements, and provided the source for the English word we now use for China (Qin is pronounced Chin).
All the while, the emperor prepared for the afterlife, commanding the construction of the burial complex that covers 35 square miles. Qin’s army of clay soldiers and horses was not a somber procession but a supernatural display swathed in a riot of bold colors: red and green, purple and yellow. Sadly, most of the colors did not survive the crucible of time—or the exposure to air that comes with discovery and excavation. In earlier digs, archaeologists often watched helplessly as the warriors’ colors disintegrated in the dry Xian air. One study showed that once exposed, the lacquer underneath the paint begins to curl after 15 seconds and flake off in just four minutes—vibrant pieces of history lost in the time it takes to boil an egg.
Now a combination of serendipity and new preservation techniques is revealing the terra-cotta army’s true colors. A three-year excavation in Xian’s most famous site, known as Pit 1, has yielded more than a hundred soldiers, some still adorned with painted features, including black hair, pink faces, and black or brown eyes. The best-preserved specimens were found at the bottom of the pit, where a layer of mud created by flooding acted as a sort of 2,000-year-long spa treatment.
The last excavation in Pit 1 screeched to a halt in 1985 after a worker stole a warrior’s head and was summarily executed—a head for a head, as it were. In the long hiatus that followed, Chinese researchers worked with experts from the Bavarian State Conservation Office in Germany to develop a preservative known as PEG to help save the warriors’ colors. During the recent excavation, the moment a painted artifact was unearthed, workers sprayed any bit of exposed color with the solution, then wrapped it in plastic to keep in the protective moisture. The most colorful pieces (and the earth surrounding them) have been removed to an on-site laboratory for further treatment. To everyone’s delight, the modern techniques for preserving ancient colors seem to be working.
In a narrow trench on the north side of Pit 1, archaeologist Shen Maosheng leads me past what look like terra-cotta backpacks strewn across the reddish soil. They are, in fact, clay quivers still bristling with bronze arrows. Shen and I skirt the remnants of a freshly excavated chariot, then stop beside a plastic sheet. “Want to see a real find?” he asks.
Lifting the sheet, Shen unveils a jagged, three-foot-long shield. The wood has rotted away, but the shield’s delicate design and brilliant reds, greens, and whites are imprinted on the earth. A few steps away is an intact military drum whose leather surface has left another glorious pattern on the dirt, its crimson lines as fine as human hair. Together with the imprints of finely woven silk and linen textiles also found here, these artifacts offer clues about the artistic culture that flourished under the Qin dynasty and the vibrant palette that infused it.
With so much color and artistry imprinted on the soil—the ancient paint, alas, adheres to dirt more readily than to lacquer—Chinese preservationists are now trying to preserve the earth itself. “We are treating the earth as an artifact,” says Rong Bo, the museum’s head chemist, who helped develop a binding agent, now under patent, that holds the soil together so the color won’t be lost. The next challenge, Rong says, will be to find an acceptable method for reapplying this color to the warriors.
With less than one percent of the vast tomb complex excavated so far, it may take centuries to uncover all that remains hidden. But the pace of discovery is quickening. In 2011 the museum launched two long-term excavation projects on the flanks of the 250-foot-high central burial mound. Exploratory digs in this area a decade ago uncovered a group of terra-cotta acrobats and strong men. More extensive excavations will yield “mind-boggling discoveries,” predicts Wu Yongqi, the museum’s director.
Down in Pit 1, Yang tightens the straps that hold her reconstructed warrior together. His head, still wrapped in plastic, is beaded with moisture. His lifelike pigment has been preserved, and his body will go on display at the museum with all of the cracks and fissures he received during his 2,200 years underground.
In the early days of the Xian excavations, the fractures and imperfections of the terra-cotta warriors were plastered over. Now, reflecting the evolution of the museum’s views on historical accuracy, a new army is forming on the pit’s west end, cracks and all. In every statue Yang’s handiwork is plainly visible. “It’s nothing special,” she says with a modest smile. And with that, she and her village friends get back to work, piecing together the puzzle beneath the roots of their old persimmon trees.