Thursday, July 09, 2009

Leading an army into the afterlife

Now this is really cool. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, 2200 years ago, prepared an army of lifesize replicas of Qin soldiers (Terracotta army) and horses to empower him in the afterlife (from this week's Science):
In life, he subdued China's warring states and became the country's first emperor. In death, he brought an army to heaven to perpetuate his rule. Since the stunning discovery of Emperor Qin Shihuang's tombs 35 years ago, archaeologists have unearthed about 1300 life-size terra-cotta soldiers and horses and a wealth of other artifacts that illuminate the brief but world-changing Qin Dynasty 2200 years ago. Last month at the renowned site, archaeologists began the latest round of excavation in a pit untouched for 2 decades. They hope to penetrate lingering puzzles about the Qin Dynasty, and they will test a new method of preserving the terra-cotta warriors' exquisitely perishable hues.

Perhaps the biggest mystery is why Qin led an army into the afterlife. "We've never found anything like it in the tombs of earlier kings," says the excavation's executive director, archaeologist Xu Weihong of the Museum of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Emperor Qin Shihuang here. T
here are several theories, including a popular one that Qin believed his army would awaken and empower him in the spirit world. Supporting that idea, archaeologists have uncovered only real weapons—no facsimiles—interred with the soldiers. But the evidence is not decisive. "The larger question of the significance and purpose of burying life-size replicas of Qin soldiers remains, in my opinion, largely unanswered," says Jeffrey Riegel, an East Asia scholar at the University of Sydney in Australia.

And it seems that he was plenty busy in pre-afterlife also:
Contemporary accounts paint a broad-brush view of Qin Shihuang's life. Born in 259 B.C.E., the future emperor, Ying Zheng, ascended to the throne of Qin State when he was 13. Nine years later a regent ceded him power, and the young monarch was soon tested by internal revolt.Ying pacified Qin and then proceeded to conquer China's other six states. He proclaimed himself emperor and took the name Qin Shihuang in 221 B.C.E.

After unifying China, Qin Shihuang set out to modernize it. Annals recount how he abolished the feudal system, built roads to China's far corners, and standardized weights, measures, and handwriting. During his reign, hundreds of thousands of laborers erected much of the Great Wall and scores of palaces. Legend has it that in his 40s, the emperor grew obsessed with death and searched for an elixir of immortality. But he failed to even attain old age: Qin died when he was 50. In the power vacuum that followed, rival armies vied for control of the empire. The victor was Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty.
But his obsession with afterlife seems to be central to his life (and it seems for his subjects):

Soon after Qin took power, he began preparing for the afterlife. Construction of his mausoleum at Mount Li, 35 kilometers east of Xi'an, took 38 years. The mausoleum, once crowned with pavilions, was never a secret, and even today it is visible as a kilometer-long wooded mound that rises a gentle 75 meters above the surrounding land.

Nearby, one of archaeology's greatest surprises lay hidden for centuries. In March 1974, farmers digging a well discovered pottery fragments about 1.5 kilometers east of the mausoleum. Excavations revealed the smashed-up remains of Qin's terra-cotta army—8000 clay soldiers and horses, researchers estimate—arrayed in three vast pits.
Very cool! Not for war, but I think an army of postdocs for the afterlife may not be a bad idea - just to subdue some pesky scientific problems. I think there is an NSF proposal here some place.

Since I get all of my history from the movies, I remembered seeing something about Emperor Qin and his unification of China. Well...of course, there was a mention of that in the visually spectacular Hero (Ying xiong) (from 2002). If you haven't seen it, check it out (but watch it on the biggest screen possible - its an absolute visual delight). Here is the trailer:

Update (Jul 10):
Laura has pointed me to another movie that involves this terracota army more directly: The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. I didn't see it and Laura doesn't recommend it. Plus it inexplicably attributes the army to one of the emperors of the Han dynasty rather than Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who preceded them. Yes, the film makers wanted to make sure you don't incidentally get any history from the movie. By the way, Jet Li is in both of these films. Think about his confusion in all of this. Here is the trailer:


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