How did the ancient Chinese coordinate armies of tens and hundreds of thousands?

How did the ancient Chinese coordinate armies of tens and hundreds of thousands?

According to what I've read, during the Warring States period and also later during the Three Kingdoms period there were armies of the magnitude of (a few) hundred thousands.

How could they coordinate such an immense mass of people? How could they provide the logistics? These armies had to be separated into smaller armies I suppose. Then how could the different battalions work together despite the distance?


In Ancient China, the primary method of coordinating units were to use flags, drums and gongs. Beating drums was a signal to advance, whereas ringing gongs was an order to retreat. The use of flags instructed units on the battlefield to move in specific directions.

《吳子‧應變》 凡戰之法,晝以旌旗旛麾為節,夜以金鼓笳笛為節。麾左而左,麾右而右。鼓之則進,金之則止。
(Wuzi, chapter "Reaction") The method of war is always to command with flags during day, and with gongs and drums at night. Move left when the flag points left, and right when the flag points right. Advance at the sound of drums, and stop at the sound of gongs.

Such commands could be issued and carried out because these armies were not masses of random strangers thrown together. In fact, Chinese armies possessed a full hierarchy of units during the Warring States period. Generally speaking, an army had a fighting strength of 12,500, evenly divided into five divisions of 2,500 each. Each division in turn consisted of five 500-strong brigades. Below the brigade level, there were smaller units of 100, 50, 25 and 5 men.

In a battle, therefore, more specific orders or intel could passed down through the ranks via the chain of command, usually by dedicated messengers. This complements the use of flags, drums and gongs for broad coordination to realise effective command in a battle.


Logistics were primarily reliant on having stockpiles of supplies. Ancient Chinese states were agrarian societies, and governments taxed their peasants in kind. Surplus rice would thus be stockpiled for military use. Consequently, these states generally did their best to improve agricultural productivity, and reforms were major factors in improving a state's military performance.

When war breaks out, although an army would march into the field with whatever supplies it could carry, this would have been only good for a few days.

《荀子‧議兵》 魏氏之武卒,以度取之,衣三屬之甲,操十二石之弩,負服矢五十個,置戈其上,冠冑帶劍,贏三日之糧,日中而趨百里
(Xunzi or Hsun-tzu, chapter "On War") The elite soldiers of Wei wear three layers; wield crossbows of 12 stones with 50 arrows; are equipped with halberds and swords; and they can carry three days supply of food.

Thus, the primary means of keeping an army fed were supply trains. Every war involved numerous wagons responsible for replenishing an army in the field with supplies from the state's central stockpiles.

《孫子兵法‧作戰》 凡用兵之法,馳車千駟,革車千乘,帶甲十萬,千里饋糧
(The Art of War, chapter "Waging War") Wars are fought with a thousand chariots, a thousand supply wagons, a hundred thousand soldiers, and food is delivered across a thousand miles.

Occasionally armies would harvest the farmlands of their enemies as well as forage, but for the larger armies of the late Warring States era, supply wagons were a necessity.


There were no armies several hundred thousand strong during the Three Kingdoms period. However, the largest engagement of the era, the Battle of Red Cliff, did involve over 200,000 troops under Cao Cao (Tsao Tsao). In that example, his forces were divided into two main prongs as well as six smaller groups, which were either held in reserve or advancing towards other targets. Within each army, individual generals commanded smaller units of perhaps 5,000 soldiers each.

Therefore, not all 200,000+ soldiers were physically present at Wulin, where the famous burning of the ships took place. Note that some have argued that Cao Cao's forces totaled ~220,000 overall, i.e. some were left in the north to guard his homeland. In this interpretation, perhaps no more than 100,000 actually took part in the battle.


Those are a lot of questions! Referenced quotes at the bottom.

How could they coordinate such an immense mass of people?

Divide up the command.

How could they provide the logistics?

They brought everything with them and hoped either to resupply from the enemy or not at all (win quickly).

These armies had to be separated into smaller armies I suppose.

Could not find any such evidence for supply reasons (tactics is another but very risky one).

Then how could the different battalions work together despite the distance?

Distance was the battlefield only, and signals and signs were used.


The Art of War by Sun Tzu states: (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/132/132.txt)

1 Sun Tzu said: The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.

That is, cutting up the army into regiments, companies, etc., with subordinate officers in command of each. Tu Mu reminds us of Han Hsin's famous reply to the first Han Emperor, who once said to him: "How large an army do you think I could lead?" "Not more than 100,000 men, your Majesty." "And you?" asked the Emperor. "Oh!" he answered, "the more the better."]


2 Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.


23 The Book of Army Management says: On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.


26 In night-fighting, then, make much use of signal-fires and drums, and in fighting by day, of flags and banners, as a means of influencing the ears and eyes of your army.


1 Sun Tzu said: In the operations of war, where there are in the field a thousand swift chariots, as many heavy chariots, and a hundred thousand mail-clad soldiers, with provisions enough to carry them a thousand LI,the expenditure at home and at the front, including entertainment of guests, small items such as glue and paint, and sums spent on chariots and armor, will reach the total of a thousand ounces of silver per day. Such is the cost of raising an army of 100,000 men.


Chinese numerals

In 1899 a major discovery was made at the archaeological site at the village of Xiao dun in the An-yang district of Henan province. Thousands of bones and tortoise shells were discovered there which had been inscribed with ancient Chinese characters. The site had been the capital of the kings of the Late Shang dynasty ( this Late Shang is also called the Yin ) from the 14 th century BC. The last twelve of the Shang kings ruled here until about 1045 BC and the bones and tortoise shells discovered there had been used as part of religious ceremonies. Questions were inscribed on one side of a tortoise shell, the other side of the shell was then subjected to the heat of a fire, and the cracks which appeared were interpreted as the answers to the questions coming from ancient ancestors.


The importance of these finds, as far as learning about the ancient Chinese number system, was that many of the inscriptions contained numerical information about men lost in battle, prisoners taken in battle, the number of sacrifices made, the number of animals killed on hunts, the number of days or months, etc. The number system which was used to express this numerical information was based on the decimal system and was both additive and multiplicative in nature. Here is a selection of the symbols that were used.


By having multiplicative properties we mean that 200 is represented by the symbol for 2 and the symbol for 100 , 300 is represented by the symbol for 3 and the symbol for 100 , 400 is represented by the symbol for 4 and the symbol for 100 , etc. Similarly 2000 is represented by the symbol for 2 and the symbol for 1000 , 3000 is represented by the symbol for 3 and the symbol for 1000 , 4000 is represented by the symbol for 4 and the symbol for 1000 , etc. There was also a symbol for 10000 which we have not included in the illustration above but it took the form of a scorpion. However larger numbers have not been found, the largest number discovered on the Shang bones and tortoise shells being 30000 .

The additive nature of the system was that symbols were juxtaposed to indicate addition, so that 4359 was represented by the symbol for 4000 followed by the symbol for 300 , followed by the symbol of 50 followed by the symbol for 9 . Here is the way 4359 would appear:

Now this system is not a positional system so it had no need for a zero. For example the number 5080 is represented by:

Because we have not illustrated many numbers above here is one further example of a Chinese oracular number. Here is 8873 :

There are a number of fascinating questions which we can consider about this number system. Although the representation of the numbers 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 needs little explanation, the question as to why particular symbols are used for the other digits is far less obvious. Two main theories have been put forward.

The first theory suggests that the symbols are phonetic. By this we mean that since the number nine looks like a fish hook, then perhaps the sound of the word for 'nine' in ancient Chinese was close to the sound of the word for 'fish hook'. Again the symbol for 1000 is a 'man' so perhaps the word for 'thousand' in ancient Chinese was close to the sound of the word for 'man'. To take an example from English, the number 10 is pronounced 'ten'. This sounds like 'hen' so a symbol for a hen might be appropriate, perhaps modified so that the reader knew that the symbol represented 'ten' rather than 'hen'.

A second theory about the symbols comes from the fact that numbers, and in fact all writing in this Late Shang period, were only used as part of religious ceremonies. We have explained above how the inscriptions were used by soothsayers, who were the priests of the time, in their ceremonies. This theory suggests that the number symbols are of religious significance. Of course it is possible that some of the symbols are explained by the first of these theories, while others are explained by the second. Again symbols such as the scorpion may simply have been used since swarms of scorpions meant "a large number' to people at that time. Perhaps the symbol for 100 represents a toe ( it does look like one ) , and one might explain this if people at the time counted up to ten on their fingers, then 100 for each toe, and then 1000 for the 'man' having counted 'all' parts of the body.

The symbols we have illustrated evolved somewhat over time but were surprisingly stable in form. However a second form of Chinese numerals began to be used from the 4 th century BC when counting boards came into use. A counting board consisted of a checker board with rows and columns. Numbers were represented by little rods made from bamboo or ivory. A number was formed in a row with the units placed in the right most column, the tens in the next column to the left, the hundreds in the next column to the left etc. The most significant property of representing numbers this way on the counting board was that it was a natural place valued system. One in the right most column represented 1 , while one in the adjacent column to the left represented 10 etc.


Now the numbers from 1 to 9 had to be formed from the rods and a fairly natural way was found.

Here are two possible representations:


The biggest problem with this notation was that it could lead to possible confusion. What was ||| ? It could be 3 , or 21 , or 12 , or even 111 . Rods moving slightly along the row, or not being placed centrally in the squares, would lead to the incorrect number being represented. The Chinese adopted a clever way to avoid this problem. They used both forms of the numbers given in the above illustration. In the units column they used the form in the lower row, while in the tens column they used the form in the upper row, continuing alternately. For example 1234 is represented on the counting board by: and 45698 by:

There was still no need for a zero on the counting board for a square was simply left blank. The alternating forms of the numbers again helped to show that there was indeed a space. For example 60390 would be represented as:

Ancient arithmetic texts described how to perform arithmetic operations on the counting board. For example Sun Zi, in the first chapter of the Sunzi suanjing Ⓣ , gives instructions on using counting rods to multiply, divide, and compute square roots.

Xiahou Yang's Xiahou Yang suanjing Ⓣ written in the 5 th century AD notes that to multiply a number by 10 , 100 , 1000 , or 10000 all that needs to be done is that the rods on the counting board are moved to the left by 1 , 2 , 3 , or 4 squares. Similarly to divide by 10 , 100 , 1000 , or 10000 the rods are moved to the right by 1 , 2 , 3 , or 4 squares. What is significant here is that Xiahou Yang seems to understand not only positive powers of 10 but also decimal fractions as negative powers of 10 . This illustrates the significance of using counting board numerals.

Now the Chinese counting board numbers were not just used on a counting board, although this is clearly their origin. They were used in written texts, particularly mathematical texts, and the power of the place valued notation led to the Chinese making significant advances. In particular the "tian yuan" or "coefficient array method" or "method of the celestial unknown" developed out of the counting board representation of numbers. This was a notation for an equation and Li Zhi gives the earliest source of the method, although it must have been invented before his time.

In about the fourteenth century AD the abacus came into use in China. Certainly this, like the counting board, seems to have been a Chinese invention. In many ways it was similar to the counting board, except instead of using rods to represent numbers, they were represented by beads sliding on a wire. Arithmetical rules for the abacus were analogous to those of the counting board ( even square roots and cube roots of numbers could be calculated ) but it appears that the abacus was used almost exclusively by merchants who only used the operations of addition and subtraction.


Here is an illustration of an abacus showing the number 46802 .


For numbers up to 4 slide the required number of beads in the lower part up to the middle bar. For example on the right most wire two is represented. For five or above, slide one bead above the middle bar down ( representing 5) , and 1 , 2 , 3 or 4 beads up to the middle bar for the numbers 6 , 7 , 8 , or 9 respectively. For example on the wire three from the right hand side the number 8 is represented (5 for the bead above, three beads below ) .

One might reasonably ask why each wire contains enough beads to represent 15 . This was to make the intermediate working easier so that in fact numbers bigger than 9 could be stored on a single wire during a calculation, although by the end such "carries" would have to be taken over to the wire to the left.


Sun Wu (Sun Tzu)

Sun Tzu is the author of The Art of War, which is widely recognized as one of the most important books written on the subject of warfare. Though there are few accurate details of Sun Tzu&rsquos early life, scholars have determined that he was born in the Chinese state of Ch&rsquoi and served King Ho-lu of Wu as a military specialist during the late Zhou dynasty (1046 BCE to 256 BCE). Through his knowledge and experience, Sun Tzu developed unique military theories that focused on psychological warfare&mdashan innovative concept during a period when most militaries were generally focused on suppressing their enemies through overwhelming physical force.

The lessons contained within The Art of War can be distilled down to one primary theme: the use of unconventional means and deception to exert psychological dominance, producing invaluable leverage over enemies in military situations. In his teachings, Sun Tzu encouraged tactics like eroding enemies&rsquo alliances, using surprise attacks to gain a tactical advantage, and even avoiding battle or retreating in order to produce a favorable outcome. By studying Sun Tzu&rsquos philosophy of mental warfare and strategy versus total reliance on physical force, military historians can enhance their understanding of how The Art of War influenced military tactics employed by countries across the globe to this day.


The Brutal History of Japan’s ‘Comfort Women’

Lee Ok-seon was running an errand for her parents when it happened: a group of uniformed men burst out of a car, attacked her and dragged her into the vehicle. As they drove away, she had no idea that she would never see her parents again.

That fateful afternoon, Lee’s life in Busan, a town in what is now South Korea, ended for good. The teenager was taken to a so-called 𠇌omfort station”𠅊 brothel that serviced Japanese soldiers—in Japanese-occupied China. There, she became one of the tens of thousands of 𠇌omfort women” subjected to forced prostitution by the imperial Japanese army between 1932 and 1945.

Lee Ok-seon, then 80, in a shelter for former sex slaves near Seoul, South Korea, holding an old photo of herself on April 15, 2007.

Seokyong Lee/The New York Times/Redux

It’s been nearly a century since the first women were forced into sexual slavery for imperial Japan, but the details of their servitude remains painful and politically divisive in Japan and the countries it once occupied. Records of the women’s subjugation is scant there are very few survivors and an estimated 90 percent of 𠇌omfort women” did not survive the war. 

Though military brothels existed in the Japanese military since 1932, they expanded widely after one of the most infamous incidents in imperial Japan’s attempt to take over the Republic of China and a broad swath of Asia: theRape of Nanking. On December 13, 1937, Japanese troops began a six-week-long massacre that essentially destroyed the Chinese city of Nanking. Along the way, Japanese troops raped between 20,000 and 80,000 Chinese women.

The mass rapes horrified the world, and Emperor Hirohito was concerned with its impact on Japan’s image. As legal historian Carmen M. Agibaynotes, he ordered the military to expand its so-called 𠇌omfort stations,” or military brothels, in an effort to prevent further atrocities, reduce sexually transmitted diseases and ensure a steady and isolated group of prostitutes to satisfy Japanese soldiers’ sexual appetites.  

A Nationalist officer guarding women prisoners said to be 𠇌omfort girls” used by the Communists, 1948.

Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

“Recruiting” women for the brothels amounted to kidnapping or coercing them. Women were rounded up on the streets of Japanese-occupied territories, convinced to travel to what they thought were nursing units or jobs, or purchased from their parents asindentured servants. These women came from all over southeast Asia, but the majority were Korean or Chinese.

Once they were at the brothels, the women were forced to have sex with their captors under brutal, inhumane conditions. Though each woman’s experience was different, their testimonies share many similarities: repeated rapes thatincreased before battles, agonizing physical pain, pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and bleak conditions.

“It was not a place for humans,” LeetoldDeutsche Welle in 2013. Like other women, she was threatened and beaten by her captors. “There was no rest,”recalled Maria Rosa Henson, a Filipina woman who was forced into prostitution in 1943. “They had sex with me every minute.”

The end of World War II did not end military brothels in Japan. In 2007, Associated Press reportersdiscovered that the United States authorities allowed 𠇌omfort stations” to operate well past the end of the war and that tens of thousands of women in the brothels had sex with American men until Douglas MacArthur shut the system down in 1946.

A group of women, who survived being forced into brothels set up by the Japanese military during World War II, protesting in front of the Japanese Embassy in 2000, demanding an apology for their enslavement.

Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images

By then,between 20,000 and 410,000 women had been enslaved in at least 125 brothels. In 1993, the UN’s Global Tribunal on Violations of Women’s Human Rightsestimated that at the end of World War II, 90 percent of the 𠇌omfort women” had died.

After the end of World War II, however, documents on the system were destroyed by Japanese officials, so the numbers are based on estimates by historians that rely on a variety of extant documents. As Japan rebuilt after World War II, the story of its enslavement of women was downplayed as a distasteful remnant of a past people would rather forget.

Meanwhile, women who had been forced into sexual slavery became societal outcasts. Many died of sexually transmitted infections or complications from their violent treatment at the hands of Japanese soldiers others committed suicide.

For decades, the history of the 𠇌omfort women” went undocumented and unnoticed. When the issue was discussed in Japan, it was denied by officials who insisted that 𠇌omfort stations” had never existed.

Former comfort woman Yong Soo Lee next to a picture of comfort girls. 

Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Then, in the 1980s, some women began to share their stories. In 1987, after the Republic of South Korea became a liberal democracy, women started discussing their ordeals publicly. In 1990, the issueflared into an international dispute when South Korea criticized a Japanese official’s denial of the events.

In the years that followed, more and more women came forward to give testimony. In 1993, Japan’s government finallyacknowledged the atrocities. Since then, however, the issue has remained divisive. The Japanese government finallyannounced it would give reparations to surviving Korean 𠇌omfort women” in 2015, but after a review, South Korea asked for a stronger apology. Japan recentlycondemned that request𠅊 reminder that the issue remains as much a matter of present foreign relations as past history.

Meanwhile,ਊ few dozen women forced into sexual slavery by Japan are still alive. One of them is Yong Soo Lee, a 90-year-old survivor who has been vocal about her desire to receive an apology from the Japanese government. “I never wanted to give comfort to those men,” shetold the Washington Post in 2015. “I don’t want to hate or hold a grudge, but I can never forgive what happened to me.”

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.


How did the ancient Chinese coordinate armies of tens and hundreds of thousands? - History

Shang = shah + ng
Han = hahn
(rhymes with "lawn")
Zhou = joe
taotie = tow-teah
Qin = chin
Fu Hao = foo how

The Bronze Age was the time when men learned how to mine and smelt copper and tin to make bronze weapons and tools. These activities required an organized labor force and skilled craftsmen. In Neolithic times (before the Bronze Age), people had made tools out of stone and hunted and gathered their food. However, in the Bronze Age people learned how to farm and produce enough extra food to feed other workers — such as miners, bronze-smiths, weavers, potters and builders who lived in towns — and to feed the ruling class who organized and led society.

The Chinese Bronze Age had begun by 1700 B.C. in the kingdom of the Shang dynasty along the banks of the Yellow River in northern China. At times the Shang kings ruled even larger areas.

Contrary to common notions about the Chinese, the Bronze Age Chinese did not drink tea or eat rice. Both these commodities came from the south and were not popular in the rest of China until hundreds of years later. Instead the ordinary people consumed cereals, breads and cakes of millet and barley and drank beer. Members of the royal court could afford to vary their diet with meat and wine.

The Shang kings spent most of their time riding forth from their walled cities with their nobles and knights to hunt and fight wars. The farmers were peasants who belonged to the land and were supervised by vassals of the king. In many ways society in Bronze Age China resembles society in Medieval Europe. In the centuries after the Zhou dynasty (11th century B.C. to 221 B.C.) replaced the Shang kings, the lords and barons seized more and more power and became more and more independent.

The Bronze Age Chinese held extraordinarily different ideas about kingship and religion from Medieval Europe. They believed the king's right to rule was based on his good relations with the spirits of his ancestors who controlled the destiny of the domain. The king continually posed questions to his ancestors about policy. He did this by instructing his scribe to write the question on an "oracle bone" — that is, an animal shoulder blade or the breast bone of a turtle. A priest then held a hot rod to the bone until it cracked and interpreted the pattern of the cracks for the answer.

It was also the king's duty to please the great forces of nature — the sun and rain gods — who controlled the outcome of the harvest. So that these gods and his ancestor spirits would look favorably on his kingdom, the king made regular sacrifices of wine and cereals, which were placed in elaborate bronze vessels and heated over the fires on the temple altar. During the Shang dynasty bronze vessels were the symbol of royalty, just as the gold crown became the symbol of royalty in Europe. [Paragraphs 3, 4, 5, and 6 in the exhibition pamphlet (reproduced below) describe the history and use of these bronzes.]

At times the Shang kings make animal and human sacrifices as well and when the king and powerful members of the royal court died, it was not unusual that their wives, servants, bodyguards, horses and dogs were killed and buried with them. During the Zhou Dynasty people gradually turned away from this custom and substituted clay figures for real people and animals.

The Importance of Archaeology

Until less than a hundred years ago the Shang Dynasty was only legend. In 1898, a few oracle bones were found accidentally. Two scholars recognized that the scratches on the bones were an ancient form of Chinese writing and managed to decipher the inscriptions. In 1928 the first scientific excavations of an ancient Chinese site began at Anyang, the last capital of the Shang dynasty. Within the beaten earth walls of the city archaeologists uncovered hundreds of oracle bones. In the tombs of kings and nobles they found magnificent bronzes, fine grey pottery, marble figures of animals and jade carvings. What has not survived and what must be filled in with the imagination are the colorfully painted wooden palaces and temples, the royal gardens, royal zoo, the silk robes, flags and trappings of the court, the earth and thatch huts of the townspeople and peasants and their rough clothes made of hemp and leather.

Treasures from the Bronze Age of China

Most of the 105 objects in the exhibition have been excavated in China in the last 25 years. Besides the bronzes, there are jade pieces and one iron object — a belt buckle. (Iron did not appear in China until the 5th century B.C.)

At the entrance to the exhibition is a wine cup made in the 17th century B.C. which is one of the earliest known Chinese bronze vessels. At the far end of the first gallery is an alcove where seven jade carvings and six bronzes belonging to Fu Hao are displayed. Her tomb excavated at Anyang in 1976 is the only intact undisturbed royal tomb to be discovered to date. From inscriptions on the nearly 200 bronzes packed in the tomb archaeologists identified the occupant as Fu Hao. Dozens of oracle bone inscriptions found at Anyang refer to Fu Hao's many activities. She was a wife of a Shang king and not only bore him children but also led his armies in battle and represented him at state ceremonies.

Within her small rectangular tomb (26 feet deep) were remains of her lacquered wood coffin set inside a larger wooden container, 16 sacrificial victims and 6 dogs. There were also more than 200 bronze weapons and tools, 600 small sculptures and ritual objects of jade and stone, ivory cups inlaid with turquoise, several bronze mirrors, 500 carved bone objects and about 7,000 cowrie shells, which were used for money.

In 1974, farmers sinking a well made an even more extraordinary discovery. Close by the tomb of China's first emperor, the ruler of Qin, they happened upon an underground chamber which lead to the discovery of some 7,000 life-sized terracotta warriors, charioteers and cavalrymen. (Eight of these figures are in the exhibition. Look at the cover of the grey pamphlet [image not included here] which shows a striding infantryman and the postcards of the kneeling archer and the cavalryman. Their costumes, the armor made of pieces of bronze and leather and their military gear are shown in exact detail.) The Qin emperor had led an exceedingly active life [see the last paragraph of the exhibition pamphlet]. The pits were situated to the east of the emperor's tomb, the direction from which his enemies would attack.

The first long gallery of the exhibition contains Shang ritual bronze containers, two bronze axes, an enormous bell and a bronze drum. The three- and four-legged cauldrons and cups were designed to heat wines and cereals. The handles and the capped posts on the rims may have been used to lift the vessels from the fire. Bowls, vases and jars held additional wine and cereal. It is not known exactly how any of these containers were used, since Shang ceremonies remain a mystery.

Many of the bronzes are amazingly heavy, suggesting a high level of technology. The four Shang bronzes on the postcards [not shown here] weigh as follows: the rectangular food cauldron, 181 lbs. the square wine vessel with rams, 75 lbs. the elephant, 6 lbs. and the covered wine vessel, about 23 lbs.

Diagram prepared by Edith Watts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Design by Sue Koch

The designs on the bronzes are fascinating. Shang artists were obviously obsessed with real and imaginary animal forms. Use a magnifying glass to study the four bronzes on the postcards. In addition to the elephant (not native to northern China and probably brought from the south for the royal zoo) and the rams, find the birds, dragons and animal masks called taotie. In the exhibition even more animal forms can be found: owls, tigers, bulls, snakes and rhinoceros. The background for the beasts is a series of spiral patterns. The silhouettes of some vessels bristle with fin-like flanges.

Often one animal form flows into another animal form as they do in the animal mask. The masks facing the viewer can also be seen as dragons in profile looking at each other.

At the end of the Shang gallery a turn to the left leads into the Zhou and Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) gallery. Although the spiral patterns, the taotie masks, and dragon designs resemble Shang bronzes, later Zhou bronzes display patterns that are more open and flowing, the animals are less abstract, and the vessels are made in new shapes. Look at the rhinoceros poster, the postcards of the Zhou wine vessel, the Han incense burner, the bull and tiger ritual object. The Han lamp in the form of a servant girl holding a candle stand is one of the first clearly represented human figures in Chinese art. A close inspection of the 5th century B.C. bronze wine vessel nearby (#91 in the exhibition) reveals lively inlaid figures dancing, playing musical instruments and battling on land and water. They are among the earliest known attempts by the Chinese to show pictures of people.

Only one of the bronzes (#46 in the exhibition) has survived uncorroded. New bronze, being largely copper, is shiny like a copper penny, only slightly more yellow. When bronze has been buried a long time, it reacts to the minerals in the ground. The exact way it reacts depends upon the amounts of copper, tin and lead in its composition. As a result the surface colors, called "patinas," are variations of green, blue-green, blackish green, red, rust, and blackish brown.

Study paragraphs 7 and 8 and the diagram of the section-mold casting technique shown in the exhibition pamphlet [reproduced below]. In the exhibition between the Shang and Zhou galleries there is a step-by-step display of the section-mold technique of casting. The surfaces of later Zhou and Han bronzes were often patterned with inlays of gold, silver or turquoise.

Jade is so hard that it cannot even be cut by steel. It is not actually carved, but is shaped by wearing away the surface of the jade with harder stones such as quartz sand, or crushed garnets. In such a way, very slowly, the jade is formed and smoothed. Jade is not indigenous to China but had to be carried great distances from Central Asia or Siberia. No wonder the ancient Chinese highly valued jade and thought it had magical properties!

Each figure in the Qin emperor's army was made by a combination of molds and individual modeling. The legs are solid. The torsos are hollow, built up from coils of clay. After the surface was finished in great detail with a finer clay, the figure was fired. The heads and hands were made and fired separately, and later attached with clay strips. Finally each figure was painted realistically and fitted with actual weapons and gear.

The Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People's Republic of China
(Exhibition Pamphlet)

From the first simple wine cup — one of the earliest Chinese bronze vessels yet known — to the extraordinary life-sized terracotta figures buried with the First Emperor of Qin, this exhibition features discoveries that have fundamentally changed our knowledge of ancient Chinese history and art.

At about the same time that Stonehenge was rising in England and Abraham was framing the principles of Judaism in the Middle East, a Bronze Age culture was developing in China that in many respects was seldom equaled and never surpassed. This development seems to have occurred early in the first half of the second millennium B.C. in the fertile Central Plains of the Yellow River valley. For thousands of years this area had sustained Neolithic cultures of increasing complexity, which ultimately culminated in the first Chinese civilization. By the time of the Bronze Age this culture was characterized by a strong centralized government, urban communities with stratified social classes, palatial architecture, a distinctive system of writing, elaborate religious rituals, sophisticated art forms, and bronze metallurgy.

Diagram of food cauldron No. 4 showing the section-mold method of casting (1) the model or core, (2) the model section, (3) the completed vessel.

[Paragraph 3] Unlike other cultures, where bronze was first used chiefly for tools and weapons, in China this alloy of copper and tin was reserved for the manufacture of majestic vessels that played central roles in state ritual and ancestor worship for more than 1,000 years, even after the official beginnings of the Iron Age in the fifth century B.C. Representing the wealth and power of the rulers, these ritual utensils show the highest degree of technical and artistic accomplishment in early Chinese civilization.

The legend of the founding of China's first dynasty demonstrates the importance of bronze to the ancient Chinese: After King Yu of the Xia brought the primordial floods under control, in about 2200 B.C., he divided his land into nine provinces, and had nine ding (food cauldrons) cast to represent them. When the Xia dynasty fell, the "nine ding," also called the "Auspicious Bronzes of the State," passed to the Shang dynasty, and, in turn, to the Zhou when they conquered the Shang. Possession of bronze vessels thus became a symbol for the holding of power and prestige. Rulers used bronze cauldrons, cups, drinking vessels, and other containers to present offerings of food and wine to royal ancestors and deities. In this way they reaffirmed their hereditary rights to power and attempted to persuade the ancestors to influence events favorably.

During Shang times wine played a major part in such ritual observances, and containers for wine therefore far outnumber other types. Then, the Shang were criticized for excessive wine drinking by their conquerors, the Zhou, who felt that such overindulgence had offended Heaven and given the Zhou the right to usurp Shang power. Safeguarding their own dynasty, the Zhou produced fewer wine vessels and replaced the favorite Shang shapes with new types of cooking and storage vessels.

After the Shang period, ritual vessels became more important as expressions of personal prestige than as vehicles for pious offerings. This is evident from the changing content of bronze inscriptions. Cast into the surface of a vessel, these inscriptions first appeared during the last Shang dynasty as a terse identification of the vessel's owner or of the ancestor to whom it was dedicated. During the Western Zhou period inscriptions became increasingly common and lengthier, extolling the achievements of the owner and expressing the poignant wish that the piece might not only honor his forebears, but also recall his own merits to his descendants "for generations without end." By the end of the Bronze Age, the vessels became worldly status symbols, more important in celebrations of the living than in rituals for the dead. Inscriptions all but disappeared, replaced by rich surfaces inlaid with gold, silver, and precious stones.

[Paragraph 7] In ancient China, bronze vessels were cast by an indigenous process that employed a mold made of sections (see diagram, right). After fashioning a clay model of the object, the founder packed it with another layer of clay that was allowed to dry, cut into sections, pried off, and fired. The model was then shaved down to become the core of the mold, the sections assembled around it, and the molten metal poured between the two. Once the bronze had cooled, the mold was removed and the surface of the vessel burnished smooth.

The decorations of early Chinese bronzes was executed directly into the model or modeled and cast into the bronze, not worked into the cold metal afterward. Undoubtedly the section-mold casting method influenced the nature of decorative designs: Shang decor is distinguished by symmetry, frontality, and incised ornament, usually arranged in horizontal bands that complement the vessel contours. The most frequently encountered decoration in the Shang period is a frontal animal mask (see illustration, below). During the Western Zhou period zoomorphic forms become more and more abstract, as the Shang motifs dissolve into linear elaboration. A new vocabulary of wave and interlace patterns based on serpentine shapes evolves during the Eastern Zhou era, and these, along with purely geometric patterns, cover the vessels in overall designs. At the same time, handles become sculptural, depicting tigers, dragons, and other beasts in poses that emphasize the swells and curves of the body's musculature.

Detail of rectangular food caldron (fang ding) no. 32. Shang dynasty, 12th century B.C. From Tomb No. 5, Anyang, Henan Province. Institute of Archaeology, Beijing

We owe the preservation of these ancient bronzes to their burial, either in storage pits, where they were hastily hidden by fleeing members of a defeated elite house, or, more commonly, in tombs. During the Shang dynasty, members of the royalty were accompanied in the afterlife by their bronzes, ceramics, weapons, amulets, and ornaments, and even the human and animal entourage that surrounded them in life: servants, bodyguards, horses, chariots, and charioteers. During the Zhou and Han periods sumptuous burials continued, but human sacrifice was rarely practiced, although the custom was preserved by the substitution of figurines of wood or clay intended to resemble the retinue of the deceased.


4. Luoyang — 13 Dynasties' Capital

Luoyang was another major capital of ancient China where various dynasties from the Eastern Zhou (1045–770 BC) to the Later Tang (923–937) presided.

Evidence of its imperial past include the Longmen Grottoes along the shore of a river where thousands of Buddhist and historical figures were carved.


In the north of China, there lies a 6,700-kilometer-long ancient wall. Now well known as the Great Wall of China, it starts at the Jiayuguan Pass of Gansu Province in the west and ends at the Shanhaiguan Pass of Hebei Province in the east. As one of the Eight Wonders in the world, the Great Wall of China has become the symbol of the Chinese nation and its culture.

The Great Wall, one of the greatest wonders of the world, was enlisted in the World Heritage by UNESCO in 1987. Just like a gigantic dragon, the Great Wall winds up and down across deserts, grasslands, mountains and plateaus stretching approximately 4,163 miles from east to west of China. With a history of more than 2000 years, some of the section of the great wall are now in ruins or even entirely disappeared. However, it is still one of the most appealing attractions all around the world owing to its architectural grandeur and historical significance.

History & Construction

The Great Wall is reputed as one of the seven construction wonders in the world not only for its long history, but its massive construction size, and its unique architectural style as well.

A great army of manpower, composed of soldiers, prisoners, and local people, built the wall. The construction result demonstrates the manifestation of the wisdom and tenacity of the Chinese people.
The construction of the Great Wall began between the 7th and 8th centuries B.C. when the warring states built defensive walls to ward off enemies from the north. It was only a regional project then. Until the Qin Dynasty, the separate walls were joint together and consequently it stretched from east to west for about 5000 thousand kilometers and served to keep nomadic tribes out. The Wall was further extended and strengthened in the succeeding dynasties. Especially during the Ming dynasty when the northern nomadic ethnic groups became very powerful, the Ming rulers had the Wall renovated 18 times. As a result, not the remains from the Qin dynasty were restored, but some 1000 kilometers were constructed to a full length of 6,700 kilometers.
The architectural style of the Great wall is a marvel in the history of construction in the world. Since the weaponry only consisted of swords and spears, lances and halberds, and bows and

arrows in the ancient times, walls with passes, watchtowers, signal towers, together with moats became an important strategy. To ensure the safety of the dynasties, the feudal rulers strove to improve the construction of the Great Wall after it took shape in the Qin dynasty. Emperor Qin Shihuang's contribution to the design of the Wall is considered to be of great importance as it ensured peace for the people in the northern part of China against the Huns and established a pattern of defense for future generations.
The Great Wall of the Qin Dynasty was built at the expense of many lives. It involved the backbreaking toil of tens of thousands of people including conscripted soldiers, slaves, convicts as well as ordinary people. It is for this reason that the story of the Great Wall is often associated with the tyranny of the First Emperor of Qin. The Ming dynasty saw the creation of a sophisticated defense system along the wall embracing garrison towns, garrison posts, passes, blockhouses, additional wall structures, watchtowers and beacon towers, each given a different status and designed mission. The system enabled the imperial court to stay in touch with military and administrative agencies at various levels, including those at the grassroots, and provided the frontier troops with facilities to carry out effective defense.
The Great wall we see today is mostly from the Ming dynasty, the wall extends for some 4,160 miles (6,700 km), often tracing the crest lines of hills and mountains as it snakes across the Chinese countryside. With an average height of 10 meters and a width of 5 meters, the wall runs up and down along the mountain ridges and valleys from east to west. It stands as a witness of the Chinese history, culture and development.

Protection
No one who has seen part of the Great Wall of China can deny that this wonder of ancient military fortification is a fantastic relic from the past that also bears witness to human endeavor. The Wall attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year from all parts of the world. The Great Wall is probably the most widely recognized and enduring symbol of China and it has been rightly said, "The man who doesn't visit the Wall has never been to China."
In its entirety, the Great Wall, or to give it its Chinese name Wan Li Chang Cheng, stretches over 10,000 li or 5,000 kilometers. Following a forty-five day long survey of 101 sections of the Wall in different provinces, the China Great Wall Academy reported on December 12, 2002 that this distance is now merely an historic record. The forces of nature and destruction at the hand of mankind are bringing about the gradual reduction of its extent with the result that less than 30% remains in good condition. The Academy has called for greater protection of this important relic.

Fight against natural calamity
While the effects of nature are gradual and may take effect over a quite lengthy period, the deliberate destruction by man could totally deplete the Wall in a very short space of time.

Should the new be built from the old?
Some parts have been dynamited and the stone sold off. This means that traces of the wall are hard to find in some areas. This begs the question "Is it right that the new should be built from the old?"

Pictured is a peasant who was busily building a stockyard of bricks taken from the Wall. Nearby, it was plain to see tracks where material had been hacked from the surface of the Wall. Although there are regulations forbidding the construction of new buildings within 150 meters of the Wall, it appears that this official announcement has failed to reach every corner of the city.

Lots of beautiful legends and stories about the Great Wall took place following along the construction, and since that time these stories have spread around the country. Those that happened during construction are abundant. Meng Jiangnu's story is the most famous and widely spread of all. The story happened during the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC). It tells of how Meng Jiangnu's bitter weeping made a section of the Great Wall collapse. Meng Jiangnu's husband Fan Qiliang was caught by federal officials and sent to build the Great Wall. Meng Jiangnu heard nothing from him after his departure, so she set out to look for him. Unfortunately, by the time she reached the great wall, shediscovered that her husband had already died.

Hearing the bad news, she cried her heart out. Her howl caused the collapse of a part of the Great Wall. This story indicates that the Great Wall is the production of tens of thousands of Chinese commoners.
Beautiful stories and legends about the Great Wall help to keep alive Chinese history and culture. In each dynasty after the building of the Great Wall, many more stories were created and spread.


Emperor's Ghost Army

Explore the buried clay warriors, chariots, and bronze weapons of China's first emperor.

In central China, a vast underground mausoleum conceals a life-size terracotta army of cavalry, infantry, horses, chariots, weapons, administrators, acrobats, and musicians, all built to serve China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, in the afterlife. Lost and forgotten for over 2,200 years, this clay army, 8,000-strong, stands poised to help the First Emperor rule again beyond the grave. Now, a new archaeological campaign is probing the thousands of figures entombed in the mausoleum. With exclusive access to pioneering research, "Emperor's Ghost Army" explores how the Emperor directed the manufacture of the tens of thousands of bronze weapons carried by the clay soldiers. NOVA tests the power of these weapons with high-action experiments and reports on revolutionary 3D computer modeling techniques that are providing new insights into how the clay figures were made, revealing in the process the secrets of one of archaeology's greatest discoveries. (Premiered April 8, 2015)

More Ways to Watch

NARRATOR: It's one of the greatest marvels of the ancient world: China's terracotta army, 8,000 strong, fully armed and built for eternity. Created more than 2,000 years ago, it was lost and only recently discovered. Now this stunning treasure reveals the first empire to rule ancient China.

XIUZHEN JANICE LI (Terracotta Army Museum): We found amazing archaeological objects.

ANDREW BEVAN (University College London): And the implications are enormous for archaeology. It's going to be truly revolutionary.

NARRATOR: But who made this vast army? How? And why? It's the creation of an amazingly advanced civilization.

MIKE LOADES (Military Historian): The Chinese crossbow is two millennia ahead of its time.

NARRATOR: Its ancient weapons excel in rigorous modern tests.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES (University College London): You cannot make a better arrowhead than this.

NARRATOR: Archaeologists piece together clues and try to decode these ancient wonders. Warriors and weapons, chariots and horses, an entire world, buried for more than 2,000 years, now sees the light of day. Revealed in all its original glory, the Emperor's Ghost Army, right now, on NOVA.

It's been called the Eighth Wonder of the World: a vast army of almost 8,000 warriors, all over 2,000 years old, larger than life-sized and made from “terracotta,” or “baked clay,” a stunning array of infantry, cavalry and chariots.

Creating on such an epic scale must have been an extraordinary challenge. How was it done? And what can it tell us about ancient China?

Now, a series of archaeological excavations shows the terracotta army is only the start, a small part of a vast complex, estimated to be over 21 square miles.

On the outskirts there's chilling evidence. The mass graves of the people who built it, piled with bones. The site contains hundreds of subterranean tombs, filled, not only with the clay warriors, but also birds, horses, musicians and acrobats. All of this surrounds a huge manmade mound, a tomb of the man responsible for creating China's first ever empire.

So far, archaeologists have excavated about 1,900 terracotta figures, only a fraction of the number believed to be buried in three major pits. Each figure is intricately detailed, weighs 3- to 400 pounds and is made from seven main parts.

The archaeological work has taken 40 years, and much still remains to be uncovered.

JANICE LI: We found amazing archaeological objects. So, I think we cannot guess what buried beneath in the whole tomb complex.

NARRATOR: But now, archaeologists are finding new answers to many of their questions. Why was the terracotta army created? And how and when was it engineered? Who were the people who built it? And what was their fate?

Scientists have dated the charcoal found in the pits as well as the clay in the figures. All the evidence indicated that the terracotta warriors were made around 2,200 years ago, more than 200 years before the birth of Christ.

It was the end of what historians call “the warring states period,” when, for over two centuries, China was devastated by rival states fighting for dominance. Mass invasions and battles raged across the countryside, but, finally, one of those states conquered all the others and created the terracotta army, and all in a single lifetime.

The great mystery is how. It's a mystery, because the oldest surviving literary source was written nearly a century after the terracotta army was built, by the father of Chinese history, Sima Qian, who wrote these classic records of the warring states and later dynasties. Surprisingly, he made no mention of the terracotta army, nor does any other source.

Over 2,000 years ago, these warriors were buried and forgotten. No one knew they ever existed. Then, one day, in 1974, during a drought in Shaanxi province, Mr. Yang and other local farmers started digging a well.

He tells China historian Jonathan Clements what happened.

YANG ZHIFA (Farmer who discovered the Terracotta army): I used a pickaxe to dig the hole.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS (Historian): As they were digging down, they found what they first thought to be the rim of a pot.

YANG ZHIFA: I said, “There's bronze underground.”

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: They also found bronze. They found metal artifacts, so they start dragging cartfuls of broken terracotta out of this well.

YANG ZHIFA: Then a shoulder and chest appeared.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: As they dug away the earth around it, they realized that they were looking at the body of a statue. They had the top of the armor, and they saw an arm.

YANG ZHIFA: I told my friend, “This is a temple.”

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: What if they have disturbed gods in an old temple? That is bad news.

Of course, what he didn't know was the importance for the entire planet, because this is the most important archaeological finding in China of the last 100 years that you can look at and say, “Ancient China was amazing!”

NARRATOR: Archaeologists soon found heaps of broken terracotta. Bits of legs, headless humans and even horses, all smashed after 22 centuries underground. They were buried in three large pits.

Pit 2 has only been partially excavated and still looks as it did when first unearthed. The roof planks are thought to cover nearly a thousand warriors and scores of chariots.

Pits 1 and 3 have also been partially excavated and an elaborate restoration project begun, repairing hundreds of warriors and recovering their lances, arrowheads and swords.

CAO WEI (Terracotta Army Museum): It astounded the world, when it was first discovered, and is truly unique. We have five ongoing archaeology sites in the mausoleum.

NARRATOR: The Terracotta Army Museum has become a major international tourist attraction, housing a vast treasure trove of ancient art, technology and information.

But can it be used to clarify how a 2,000-year-old culture overcame all the challenges of creating such an epic masterpiece?

It's a mystery that a joint team from University College London and the Terracotta Army Museum is investigating.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: There are two types of visitors to the terracotta army. Some appreciate the beauty in the detail. You can choose any of these warriors and you will immediately admire the very personal facial expressions, the individual hairstyle. Other people are more taken by the sheer scale of this site, its magnitude. How was it possible to orchestrate all the technological knowledge, all the resources and all the manpower needed and to do it so quickly?

NARRATOR: And it was built in an amazingly short period, all within 37 years. The length of the reign of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.

That's according to Sima Qian's historical records, which state that he was enthroned in 246 B.C., and that this is when work started on his mausoleum, and that 37 years later, he died and work stopped. But by then Qin Shi Huang had built an empire.

His Qin state ended over two centuries of war and conquered all its powerful neighbors. The first emperor now ruled many millions of people and an area that rivalled the size of the Roman Empire. The Qin Empire gave its name to China, along with a legal system and one currency. But the first emperor also had a reputation for extreme cruelty.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: What we now call China is only called China because of the first emperor. The problem that the Chinese have today is reconciling this idea that he was a cruel tyrant and that hundreds of thousands of people suffered and died under his regime,&

NARRATOR: His story in Sima Qian also lists some of his crimes as massacring prisoners of war, burning books and slaughtering his critics.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: &but also that he did some good, that he unified China, that he took these disparate states, with different languages and with different writing systems, and he forced them all to be Chinese.

NARRATOR: Sima Qian's accuracy has been questioned, since he lived a century after the first emperor died and was a member of the succeeding dynasty, but his account describes the Emperor's obsession with immortality, which may help explain the motivation behind the building of his vast tomb.

JANICE LI: What he believed, when he died, he still could carry on his life in the underground kingdom. So he brought all of the things with him to the underground kingdom.

NARRATOR: The ancient Chinese saying “treat death like birth” meant he could enjoy his possessions in the afterlife. This may have inspired the elaborate planning of his vast mausoleum and overshadowing it all, the first emperor's own huge tomb mound.

The grand historian said the imperial coffin was buried under the mound, which was originally 350 feet high. The mound has not yet been excavated, for fear of damaging it, and it won't be, until the contents can be safely preserved.

But Sima Qian vividly described how a model of the empire surrounded the bronze coffin, with miniature rivers of mercury flowing into seas and heavenly bodies on the ceiling above. The tomb mound is the center of a mausoleum unrivalled in history, built so the emperor's afterlife matched his luxurious life before death.

Dams diverted streams around the tomb. Over 300 coffins were filled with horse skeletons. Other pits held models of exotic animals and even members of the emperor's court.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: So we're finding musicians and acrobats and weight lifters. So we're seeing an entire culture revealed to us.

NARRATOR: This is not just a mausoleum, but an eternal pleasure palace: two half-size chariots made up of over 3,400 parts. Each is pulled by four bronze horses, their harnesses embellished with gold and silver.

JANICE LI: They got bronze chariot for his spirit to travel in the afterlife. And also he got terracotta warriors with him to protect him in afterlife.

NARRATOR: Such beliefs may explain the creation of the terracotta army and why it is located a mile to the east of his tomb. It stands guard between the emperor's grave and the states he subjugated to the east.

He may have feared that the spirits of his many victims would seek revenge in the afterlife. So, perhaps the terracotta bodyguards were created to combat any threat from the underworld.

The ongoing survey work has mapped the newest finds and shows the site is far larger than originally thought, covering the area of 10,000 football fields.

But how did the Qin craft so many imposing and intricately designed clay warriors? Reassembling the broken figures is the first part of their restoration and reveals the clues to how they were made. Each figure was handcrafted from the local clay. You can see, on the broken figures, how the torso was created by coiling clay around in layers to build the upper body.

JANICE LI: That's the marks here, probably the hand holding inside and then smooth outside.

NARRATOR: Master craftsman Mr. Han has studied the figures with the museum curators and worked to replicate ancient production methods.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: So what's the weight of an average warrior?

JANICE LI: (Translating from conversation with Mr. Han): About 200 kilos.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: That's over 400 pounds.

JANICE LI: Yes. So, that's very heavy.

NARRATOR: Limbs, boots, hands and heads were all cast from the local clay, which was pressed into molds and shaped for each body part. Originally, the legs were based upon molds used for drainpipes. The molding process creates a variety of limbs that can be combined with the various torsos in different ways to create a mix of figures: archers, heavy infantry, cavalrymen, generals, officials and charioteers and even their horses.

Once the hollow mold is filled out with clay, it's joined and allowed to dry before the figure is assembled, ready for firing in a kiln or oven.

Mr. Han has built a replica of an ancient Qin kiln.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: So, it's based on the real Qin archaeology.

JANICE LI: Yeah, that's based on the Qin, real Qin archaeology.

NARRATOR: The figures are sealed up and then fired for days to harden them. The original figures are a combination of molded parts. But are they clones or individuals? There are a variety of different faces. They are dark and light skinned, with varying facial hair. They have many different eye shapes and a dazzling array of hairstyles and head wear.

There are clearly differences among the figures, but is each one truly unique?

The scientists hope to provide a definitive answer, by making 3D models to allow precise comparisons. Each figure will need to be scanned into the computer, but 3D-laser-scanning is time-consuming and expensive.

So Janice Li is using a still camera as the first step in the process that will turn 2D pictures into 3D models.

ANDREW BEVAN: This is a very new technique, and the implications are enormous for archaeology. And it's going to be truly revolutionary.

NARRATOR: Back in London, Andrew Bevan is compositing the photographs, to create a 3D model.

ANDREW BEVAN: What the software tries to do is to go through each photograph and define a set of features that it can recognize. It might be, for example, the tip of an ear.

NARRATOR: In humans, no two ears are the same, and Andrew Bevan wants to know if this is the case for the terracotta figures. The computer maps the features in three-dimensional space, then joins them up to create the head.

ANDREW BEVAN: We've done this particular warrior in all of his glory.

NARRATOR: These models are designed to allow precise comparison of everything from hands to heads, arms to armor, or figure to figure.

ANDREW BEVAN: Effectively, the sky's the limit. In this particular case, I'm going to slice off the ear of the warrior, so it could be compared to some others.

NARRATOR: This will show if they are all anatomically unique. The results indicate that the ears vary in shape, with different sized earlobes.

ANDREW BEVAN: What we've discovered, so far, through these 3D models, is that no two ears are demonstrably the same. These warriors seem to be very individual, in the same way as a typical human population.

NARRATOR: Some archaeologists suggest that they are even portraits of real people.

So, this was an army of individual warriors, each strikingly real and unique, the product of the skill, dedication and technique of the craftsmen creating them.

JANICE LI: The hands work really reflected the processes of making terracotta warriors 2,000 years ago.

(Translating from conversation with Mr. Han): Yes, so, it normally takes three days for Han to carve, you know, the details.

NARRATOR: Even today, the individual style of the craftsman clearly shows up in his work.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: Mr. Han's ears.

JANICE LI: Yeah. It's really big ear lobes there. Yeah.

NARRATOR: But years of careful restoration, preservation and analysis have given rise to clues that the terracotta army was originally quite different from what we see today. Flakes of bright pigments still cling to the surface of torsos, hands and heads, showing the warriors were once highly decorated and suggesting a colorful, even gaudy array when first created.

We can now see how the warriors may have looked over 2,200 years ago: a dazzling display of colors, with painted figures and ornate chariots, all fully armed and intimidating.

But were they carrying sharpened war-grade weapons or merely symbolic representations? After the wooden parts rotted away, all that was left on the floor are the bronze weapons once placed in the warriors' hands.

But how are these weapons made? And how are they used? To analyze them, Janice Li is creating silicon casts of the ancient weapons, using a technique originally developed for dentists.

JANICE LI: We use this silicon mold to get very clear impression on the surface.

NARRATOR: By putting the silicon impression under a scanning electron microscope, Janice Li avoids any damage to the original weapon and can examine the blades in extreme close up. The screen is filled by a tiny section of the blade. The marks show it was originally sharp and still is today.

JANICE LI: These parallel fine marks show this really massive effort for sharpening these functional lethal weapons.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: So consistent, so, you cannot do these by hand. Every one of the 40,000 arrowheads were sharpened by somebody on a wheel.

NARRATOR: The identical parallel lines on so many weapons show this is mechanical sharpening, on an industrial scale. Only one type of machine could make these fine even lines, a rotary lathe that uses a spinning stone to sharpen blades.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: All the swords, all the lances, all the halberds and every one of the 40,000 arrowheads have been sharpened in the same way.

NARRATOR: Combat damages the edges of bronze weapons, but the terracotta army ones are unmarked.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: There's no sign whatsoever of them having been used. These are freshly made weapons, delivered directly to the terracotta army.

I think it's obvious these are not representations for religious purposes. These are real, lethal weapons, made to kill.

NARRATOR: This is the earliest evidence of rotary lathes being used for sharpening weapons, on an industrial scale, anywhere in the world.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: They're really well done. This is fantastic.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: I think we are onto something exciting.

NARRATOR: So the terracotta army was fully armed. The heavy infantry carried the deadly “G” or halberd. Some were over six feet long.

Military historian Mike Loades demonstrates how it was a highly flexible weapon. The Qin army's best defense against their greatest foe, cavalry.

MIKE LOADES: A major threat to all Chinese armies of all states was cavalry, both horsemen and charioteers. And the principle defense against them was the halberd.

Now, obviously, I had to stop the horse there, or it would have impaled himself on the spear. And that's really the first function of the halberd. And you'll see it's got this crosspiece, this transverse bar, so if I had gone hurtling into a line of halberds, this would have skewered the poor horse here, but it would have stopped, so the halberdier himself doesn't get trampled.

He can also use the spike to take out the horse's leg. But what if the animal gets past the point of the halberds, and I'm coming in with a lance? He could use his halberd to lift the point, so that it's done that, and that's pushed it onto my throat. And he has pushed me where he can obviously be quickly dispatched.

NARRATOR: As well as the halberd, the Qin deployed a range of bronze weapons, including spears, lances and longswords. But the ancient Chinese led the world in one particular branch of warfare: archery.

A variety of pre-Qin sources show the Chinese invented the crossbow centuries before the first emperor. But how and why did it evolve to become the most effective offensive weapon of the age?

MIKE LOADES: The Chinese battlefield was full of arrow storms. Storm after storm of arrows. But that takes skill and training. How could you do that with an army full of peasant conscripts that were there for a few months? Well the answer was in the Chinese crossbow. Just a simple stock of wood easily mounts any bow, so the bow is already made. It fits onto there and just with putting a crosspiece in there you could lash that into position.

NARRATOR: None survive. This is a working replica. Its importance is shown by the ranks of terracotta archers, armed with crossbows and ready for battle. But all that is left of the Qin crossbows, after the wooden parts have rotted away, are clusters of strange bronze objects found in the pits.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: This is a bronze crossbow trigger, one of the most sophisticated three-dimensional engineering mechanisms of ancient times.

NARRATOR: They were mass-produced, with all the parts made to fit together precisely, as historians of the day recorded.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: The Annals of Lü Buwei, who would date to around the time of the first Emperor, claim that if there's any misalignment in the parts of a trigger, it will not function.

NARRATOR: Using a replica, Mike Loades demonstrates the design of the trigger.

MIKE LOADES: The real genius was the trigger: the bronze, the cast bronze trigger, produced to a standardized form in the hundreds of thousands. So it's got its very simple interchangeable component parts. It comes apart very easily, and it goes together very easily. And this whole assembly just drops into a pre-carved slot in the bow, and you have got a bow ready to shoot.

NARRATOR: The trigger locks tightly and can securely hold and smoothly release the power of the bow.

MIKE LOADES: It is an ingenious bit of mass-produced, standardized military equipment.

NARRATOR: But any crossbow is only as deadly as its arrows. Over 40,000 arrowheads have been excavated from the pits. This is just one bundle of a hundred, a quiver's full, discovered here, in the middle of Pit 1.

So what were these arrowheads made of? A portable X-ray fluorescent spectrometer is used to explore the details of Qin metalworking.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: This is, today, the simplest, fastest, even cheapest, way we have of determining the chemical composition of something. It's only recently that we are beginning to use it in archaeology, bringing about a revolution in the way we can characterize materials.

NARRATOR: It shows the terracotta army's weapons are nearly all made from bronze, an alloy that's a mixture of copper, lead and tin. At first, the researchers assume that every part of the arrow will be a single blend of bronze.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: This is telling us the recipe that the weapon-makers had for each of the parts of their weapons. There's the head proper, and then what we call the “tang,” which would be inserted in the longer bamboo shaft.

The tang contains three percent tin, one percent lead, and the rest is copper. So, it tells us that this is a bronze with relatively low amounts of lead and tin.

We can now turn it over, we can immediately see a relatively high tin content that's around 20 percent. This is an alloy that we know would be extremely hard.

NARRATOR: More tin makes for a harder, sharper arrowhead, but less tin makes the tang more flexible and less likely to snap.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: When you only have bronze, you cannot make a better arrowhead than this. This is as good as a bronze weapon is going to get.

NARRATOR: So, they used two different alloys of bronze in one fused section of the weapon, the arrowhead and the tang, the part connecting the arrowhead to the shaft. But how?

Master forger Andy Lacey is experimenting, trying to reproduce the casting techniques developed in China over 2,000 years ago.

ANDY LACEY (Master Forger): You have your tang pre-cast, already exists. You just insert it into the mold. You can see that it sits within the space that's the arrowhead, and then, you put the top part on and clamp it together. Then you see the tang just sticks out there and that's the funnel that would take the metal in.

It's got these two components beautifully together,&

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: Yeah, that's the important thing.

ANDY LACEY: &and has welded on very tightly.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: Very tightly.

NARRATOR: Joining the two bronze alloys reveals the Qin's impressive technical sophistication and innovative production skills. But only a test can show if the replica arrowheads perform in practice.

Ancient Chinese sources give clues to how the bows that shot them were loaded.

MIKE LOADES: We have some evidence that the Qin laid on their backs to span their bows. That would suggest pretty powerful bows of about 200 pounds, which is more powerful than a hand-bow is going to be.

NARRATOR: Mike's demonstration bow replicates the mechanism of an authentic Qin bow, but only creates a quarter of the force.

MIKE LOADES: And we're now shooting with more than four times the power.

NARRATOR: To test the replica arrows to the limit, he's using a modern bow, with the 200-pound draw weight of the original Qin bows. It's devastating against ballistic gel, but how will it fare against Chinese armor?

MIKE LOADES: This is the level of armor that an arrow has to defeat. It's lamellar armor. That means you've got scales, which overlap each other, and then, behind that, is soft textile armor. And you can see on the terracotta warriors, they're wearing quite bulky clothing. And armor is a composite defense of hard exterior with soft padding, and they've probably got felt coats under that. Deep inside, here, is a piece of pork, to represent the human being inside. So that's the challenge an arrowhead has. Delivering that crucial thump to the target.

Well, it's stuck in. It's done something, by god, and its gone right through the pork. That is a dead enemy.

It's actually gone right through, and it's come out the other side, through the pork. Through three layers of hardened leather, through multiple layers of gathered silk, through a thick piece of felt, through a side of pork, and here it is, out the other side.

NARRATOR: The Qin used the crossbow to powerful effect. In 223 B.C., the Qin faced the vast Chu army on the banks of the Yangtze River. The Qin tricked them and then attacked with their devastating archers.

MIKE LOADES: This seemingly simple mechanism is two millennia ahead of its time.

NARRATOR: It would take over 1,500 years for European crossbows to surpass the Chinese ones in power, and only then with cumbersome levers and pulleys, making them far slower to use and difficult to master.

MIKE LOADES: You can learn to use this in less than two minutes. And it enabled a peasant army to be converted into state of the art troops.

NARRATOR: The Qin army had become so well organized and equipped, it conquered all its rivals and ended two centuries of war. The Qin leader now ruled all China, as the first emperor.

Historian Sima Qian, writing a century later, from the prospective of a succeeding dynasty, describes a frenzy of book-burning.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: All of the books in his kingdom were destroyed, possibly thousands of Chinese documents that we'll never get back, a terrible cataclysm for Chinese history and for Chinese historians.

NARRATOR: It was, according to Sima Qian, a descent into complete tyranny, as 700,000 workers were forced to expand the tomb complex. On the far western edge of the site, chilling evidence has revealed the dark secret behind the making of the terracotta army.

Janice Li is heading into the orchards, where mass graves have been excavated, filled with the bodies of workers, including women and children, worn down by the relentless toil. Archaeologists also found leg and neck irons, while Sima Qian refers to some workers as convicts and men condemned to castration.

The all-controlling Qin bureaucracy gave each body an inscribed death certificate or dog tag. Each is a moving testimony to an individual story of hard labor.

JANICE LI: Bu Geng Jiu is the builder's name, means, like, he owed the government money. So, he needs to work here instead of paying off the money to the government.

NARRATOR: The story of worker Bu Geng Jiu is typical. He was forced to work because he couldn't pay a crippling debt he owed the government. It was this forced labor that enabled the Qin to create the Chinese empire, protected with the earlier stages of the Great Wall, connected with intercity highways and irrigated with networks of canals and locks.

Conscripted laborers and slaves also assisted skilled artisans in making the 8,000 terracotta warriors. But how did the Qin do it all on such a vast scale? And with such attention to detail.

The careful study of both the figures and the weapons now enables us to understand how the workforce was organized and controlled.

Inscriptions on the warriors reveal who made them. They were built by groups, or cells, led by 92 master craftsmen, each probably controlling about 10 workers. These cells came from the palace factories or local workshops.

And the weapons also provide evidence of this highly productive and tightly controlled organization.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: We have hundreds, thousands of weapons here, but we want to find out how that was achieved. How is it that they could produce so many weapons in such a relatively short period?

NARRATOR: To help answer this, Janice Li has meticulously plotted all the armaments found in Pit 1.

JANICE LI: This is the map of all these bronze weapons, discovered in the east part of Pit 1. So, like, the red one showed the bronze triggers, crossbow triggers, discovered in the pit and the black dots presents the arrow boundaries.

NARRATOR: The plots are then compared with the analysis of the metal content of the arrowheads,&

JANICE LI: This group really are very different from&

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: Yes.

NARRATOR: &and the precise shape of the triggers. This reveals that the triggers fall into distinctive groups, defined by their characteristic shapes.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: For example, this hanging knife, here, is curved at this corner. This other one, here, ends at an angle.

NARRATOR: The plots of the armaments in Pit 1 identified several distinct batches of triggers. All the trigger combinations located in the top northeast corner are identical in size, bronze content and design, suggesting they were made by the same cell of workers. While this set of triggers is different, showing it was made by another cell of workers.

ANDREW BEVAN: This is a series of cells, working individually to create these metal weapons.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: All of this requires a very versatile workforce that can produce a sword today, a crossbow tomorrow, a halberd the day after, depending on what's needed, as the work moves forward.

NARRATOR: The worker cells were trained to be, not only productive, but versatile.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: I think this production model holds the key to understand how it was possible to produce something so colossal, so big, but also so sophisticated in a time window, maximum, 40 years, quite possibly less.

NARRATOR: Janice Li has also found crucial evidence about how the workers were organized, by decoding inscriptions chiseled into their weapons. They reveal a structure of strict supervision, where all the workers had to record their names.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: We can see individual workers, working on different years of the reign of Qin above them, the craftsmen form and that will be working with them the officials and then, on top of all, Lü Buwei, who was then the Prime Minister or Chancellor of Qin.

NARRATOR: The craftsmen at the bottom had to sign their names, so any substandard work could easily be traced.

MARCOS MARTINÓN-TORRES: Sometimes people referred to this supervisory system for quality control as a “carrot and stick” system. If something was wrong with a particular weapon that didn't fit the standard, then one could identify worker Jing, in particular, and make him accountable for his error.

NARRATOR: Everything had to be perfect for an immortal army, created to defend the first emperor in his perpetual afterlife, and perfection was achieved through fear.

Some recently discovered Qin legal codes detail a harsh system, where even minor crimes had terrible consequences.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: The state of Qin didn't just define things like theft and murder as crimes. Incompetence was also a crime. So, not meeting a particular standard of workmanship would also have been met with savage punishment: maimings, you have tortures, you have executions.

NARRATOR: This was all part of the system the Qin had created to rule every aspect of life in the empire. It was called “legalism.”

The grand historian, Sima Qian describes a society organized into small groups, each person responsible for the others' behavior.

JONATHAN CLEMENTS: Every unit of five or ten houses was obliged to report on each other. If anyone committed a crime within your cell and you didn't report it, the entire cell would be punished. It's very likely that just as the army and society was divided up in this cellular way, that the artisans, the blacksmiths and the potters of the Qin world also worked on very similar lines.

It creates a vicious, brutal society of people informing on each other, and everyone was terrified.

NARRATOR: All the evidence shows that the Qin deployed small groups of skilled workers capable of mass-producing both weapons and individualized figures. They were controlled by a rigid system of incentives and punishments.

In 210 B.C., 11 years after he conquered all his neighbors, the first emperor died. Sima Qian records he was buried in a bronze coffin, surrounded by rivers of mercury, laid out in a map of the empire.

His tomb mound has never been excavated, but the terracotta army opened the door to a lost world. This massive site stands as testimony to the ingenuity and ruthlessness of the ancient Qin civilization. Its pioneering system of flexible manufacturing, combined with authoritarian rule, allowed it to create the eternal wonder of the terracotta army.

This remarkable discovery gives a glimpse into how one small state created a vast empire, perhaps foreshadowing the rise of a super-power today: modern China.


MODERN BLACK CHINESE

The statues of the infantry soldiers range between 5 foot 8 inches and 6 foot 2 inches the commanders are 6 and half feet tall. The lower half of the kiln-fired ceramic bodies were made of solid terracotta clay, the upper half hollow. Terracotta Figures were found to be painted in red, green, blue, yellow, purple, brown, white, black, pink, vermilion, etc. The pigments were artificially produced from cinnabar, malachite and azurite as well as barium copper silicate.

After the sculptures were baked in the kiln, they were first covered with a lacquer ground and then painted with pigments in one or two layers. The terra-cotta figures have gone through a natural process of 2200 years decay, the lacquer cracks and peels off once the warriors were exposure to the air, taking any remaining pigment with it.

Following their accidental discovery in the 1970s the old soldiers have been carefully restored and preserved. They look well for their age and this can be attributed largely to Wu Yongqi. He is the Curator of the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses.

The preservation of terracotta warriors is no easy task. Most difficult of all is dealing with the colors, for originally all the terracotta warriors were painted. Many years spent underground has taken its toll on the ancient paint. Once excavated, what remains of the fragile coloring is lost within minutes of contact with the air. "Only when we restore the color can we say with confidence that a terracotta warrior has been preserved. To address this problem, we set up a joint team of experts from the museum and the Bavarian State Department of Historical Monuments," says Wu.

Plastic solution and particle accelerator revive faded Chinese figures.

The life-sized terracotta figures were found buried in underground chambers near Xi'an, China, in 1974. The clay effigies lay buried in water-soaked soil. As the relics were cleaned on-site, experts found that the exposed paint would curl and fall off due to water loss. As the figures are exhumed, their sodden glaze starts to dry out. The brownish lacquer, covered with coloured pigments, begins to flake and fall off.

Langhals' team bathes the warriors in a solution containing hydroxyethyl methacrylate (HEMA). The organic molecule, which is commonly used to make plastics, is small enough to penetrate tiny pores in the glaze. Next the soldiers journey to nearby Lintong, where they are bombarded with electrons in a particle accelerator. This converts the impregnated liquid into a robust polymer, bonding the fragile coating together like glue.


In Sudan, Rediscovering Ancient Nubia Before It’s Too Late

I n 1905 , British archaeologists descended on a sliver of eastern Africa, aiming to uncover and extract artifacts from 3,000-year-old temples. They left mostly with photographs, discouraged by the ever-shifting sand dunes that blanketed the land. “We sank up to the knees at every step,” Wallis Budge, the British Egyptologist and philologist, wrote at the time, adding: “[We] made several trial diggings in other parts of the site, but we found nothing worth carrying away.”

For the next century, the region known as Nubia — home to civilizations older than the dynastic Egyptians, skirting the Nile River in what is today northern Sudan and southern Egypt — was paid relatively little attention. The land was inhospitable, and some archaeologists of the era subtly or explicitly dismissed the notion that black Africans were capable of creating art, technology, and metropolises like those from Egypt or Rome. Modern textbooks still treat ancient Nubia like a mere annex to Egypt: a few paragraphs on black pharaohs, at most.

Today, archaeologists are realizing how wrong their predecessors were — and how little time they have left to uncover and fully understand Nubia’s historical significance.

“This is one of the great, earliest-known civilizations in the world,” says Neal Spencer, an archaeologist with the British Museum. For the past ten years, Spencer has traveled to a site his academic predecessors photographed a century ago, called Amara West, around 100 miles south of the Egyptian border in Sudan. Armed with a device called a magnetometer, which measures the patterns of magnetism in the features hidden underground, Spencer plots thousands of readings to reveal entire neighborhoods beneath the sand, the bases of pyramids, and round burial mounds, called tumuli, over tombs where skeletons rest on funerary beds – unique to Nubia — dating from 1,300 to 800 B.C.

Sites like this can be found up and down the Nile River in northern Sudan, and at each one, archaeologists are uncovering hundreds of artifacts, decorated tombs, temples, and towns. Each finding is precious, the scientists say, because they provide clues about who the ancient Nubians were, what art they made, what language they spoke, how they worshipped, and how they died — valuable puzzle pieces in the quest to understand the mosaic of human civilization writ large. And yet, everything from hydroelectric dams to desertification in northern Sudan threaten to overtake, and in some cases, erase these hallowed archaeological grounds. Now, scientists armed with an array of technologies — and a quickened sense of purpose — are scrambling to uncover and document what they can before the window of discovery closes on what remains of ancient Nubia.

“Only now do we realize how much pristine archaeology is just waiting to be found,” says David Edwards, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K.

“But just as we are becoming aware it’s there, it’s gone,” he adds. Within the next 10 years, Edwards says, “most of ancient Nubia might be swept away.”

B etween 5,000 and 3,000 B.C., humans across Africa were migrating to the Nile’s lush banks as the Earth warmed and equatorial jungles transformed into the deserts they are today. “You cannot go 50 kilometers along the Nile River Valley without finding an important site because humans spent thousands of years here in the same place, from prehistoric to modern times,” Vincent Francigny, the director of the French Archeological Unit, tells me in his office in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Nearby his office, the White Nile from Uganda and the Blue Nile from Ethiopia unite into one river that flows through Nubia, enters Egypt and exits into the Mediterranean Sea.

Roughly around 2,000 B.C., archaeologists find the first traces of the Nubian kingdom called Kush. Egyptians conquered parts of the Kushite Kingdom for a few hundred years, and around 1,000 B.C., Egyptians appear to have died, left, or mixed thoroughly with the local population. At 800 B.C., Kushite kings, also known as the black pharaohs, took over Egypt for a century — two cobras decorating the pharaohs’ crowns signify the unification of kingdoms. And somewhere around 300 A.D., the Kushite empire began to fade away.

In the early 20th century, Harvard archaeologist George Reisner discovered dozens of pyramids and temples in Sudan. But with unquestioning condescension, he — like many of his contemporaries — attributed any sophisticated architecture to a light-skinned race. (Image via Wikimedia)

Almost nothing is known about what life was like for people living in Nubia during this time. British Egyptologists of the 19th century often relied on accounts from ancient Greek historians who fabricated wild tales, Francigny says, never bothering to go to Sudan themselves. Some details were filled in by Harvard archaeologist George Reisner in the first part of the 20th century. Reisner discovered dozens of pyramids and temples in Sudan, recorded the names of kings, and shipped the most precious antiquities to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. With no evidence and unquestioning condescension, he attributed any sophisticated architecture to a light-skinned race. In a 1918 bulletin for the museum, he matter-of-factly wrote, “The native negroid race had never developed either its trade or any industry worthy of mention, and owed their cultural position to the Egyptian immigrants and to the imported Egyptian civilization.” And believing that skin pigmentation marked intellectual inferiority, he attributed the downfall of ancient Nubia to racial intermarriage.

Besides belonging to an overtly racist period, Reisner was a member of an old wave of archaeology that was more interested in recording the names of royalty and retrieving treasures than looking at antiquities as a means to understand the evolution of societies and cultures. Stuart Tyson Smith, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, takes a newer approach when he brushes dust from objects he’s found in Nubian tombs over the past several years. Underground burial chambers hold skeletons whose bones are probed for details about age, health, and place of origin, as well as cultural clues, since the dead were buried with belongings. Smith and his team have been excavating a huge necropolis south of Spencer’s locale, called Tombos, that was in use for hundreds of years before the seventh century B.C.

Smith gleefully invites me into storerooms in Tombos overflowing with items he and his team have recently found. Our ancestors considered vanity on the journey to the land of the dead: They were buried beside kohl eyeliner, vases of cologne, and intricately painted cosmetics boxes. Smith cradles a clay incense burner shaped like a duck. He’s found one other like it, from a period around 1,100 B.C. “They had fads, like us,” Smith says, “Like, you just gotta get one of those duck incense things for the funeral.”

A woman’s skull half coated with termite-riddled dirt rests on a wooden table. Smith beams and locates an amulet the size of his fist that he found beside this skeleton. The amulet is shaped like a scarab beetle, a common symbol of rebirth in Egypt, but the insect bears a man’s head. “This is very unusual,” Smith says. He laughs as he paraphrases hieroglyphics etched into the scarab’s underside: “On the day of judgment, let my heart not testify against me.”

Smith’s colleague, Michele Buzon, a bioarchaeologist at Purdue University, will ship the skull back to her lab in Indiana to analyze the isotopic composition of strontium buried in tooth enamel. Strontium is an element found in rocks and soil, which varies from place to place. Because strontium integrates into layers of enamel as children grow, it signals where a person was born. It will reveal whether this woman was from Egypt, as the scarab suggests, or a local with a taste for Egyptian-like things.

So far, it seems clear that Egyptian officials lived and died alongside Nubians in Tombos between 1,450 to 1,100 B.C. Egypt taxed the region, which was a hub for trade, with ivory, gold, and animal pelts transported up the Nile from the south. But by 900 B.C., Buzon rarely finds indications of Egyptian roots buried in tooth enamel. Strontium isotopes reveal that people were born and raised in Nubia, although an Egyptian influence remained embedded in the culture. In many ways, it is an early sign of artistic appropriation. “They were creating new forms,” Smith says.

In 2005, he excavated a burial chamber with a male skeleton, filled with Nubian arrowheads, objects imported from the Middle East, and a copper cup with charging bulls engraved within — the cattle being commonplace in Nubian designs. “Although he’s got these traditional Nubian objects, there is also this cosmopolitan stuff that shows he’s part of the in-crowd,” Smith explains.

“This period has been burdened by racist colonial interpretations assuming that Nubians were backwater and inferior and now we can tell the story of this remarkable civilization,” he adds.

With so little known about life in ancient Nubia, every object that’s uncovered could prove to be invaluable. “We are rewriting history here,” Smith says, “not just finding one more mummy.”

That said, a member of Smith’s group did discover naturally mummified remains at an ancient cemetery near Tombos, called Abu Fatima. Sarah Schrader, a bioarchaeologist now based at Leiden University in the Netherlands, was on her knees in a dirt pit, chipping at mud cemented onto the skin of a disembodied human leg when she brushed away loose sand and saw a lump. “Oh my God, an ear!” she yelled. “Orocumbu!” she called out, using the Nubian word for head — an alert for a few local staff nearby. Trading the trawl for a brush, she exposed a mat of curly black hair. And when she swept away sand lower down, her stomach turned. A plump tongue stuck out below two front teeth. After taking a quick break, Schrader excavated the rest of the head.

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Schrader packaged the head carefully, and plans to ship it to a humidity-controlled chamber in the Netherlands. There, she will date the bones and assess strontium from the man’s tooth enamel to learn where he was from. Finally, his fleshiness gives her hope that ancient DNA might be extracted. With genetic sequencing, researchers might determine if modern-day Nubians, Egyptians, or one of hundreds of ethnic groups from the surrounding regions might trace their heritage to this early civilization.

To find the lost language of ancient Nubia, I sought out Claude Rilly, a linguist specializing in ancient languages, at Soleb and Sedeinga — sites recognized by majestic and crumbling temples and a field of small pyramids. The stretch of desert between those sites and Tombos is post-apocalyptic: scorched, flat earth and sable boulders as far as the eye can see. At a point when sand completely covers the road, I transfer into a rickety motorboat. Rilly is waiting on the riverbank. A towering man with a weathered face and easy grin, he welcomes me by saying, “Here we are in the cradle of humanity — in the place where human beings have the oldest home.”

Unprompted, Rilly begins to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics etched into the sandstone columns of the temple at Soleb. But he is eager to show off his most valuable finds: stele, stone slabs engraved with Meroitic text from ancient Nubia. Based at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, Rilly is one of only a few people who can translate Meroitic text. It’s unrelated to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Rather, Rilly has found ties between Meroitic and a handful of languages spoken today by ethnic groups in Nubia, Darfur, and Eritrea.

To figure out what the words mean, he compares each precious tablet of text to another, searching for commonalities and themes. He lifts a recently discovered stele out of a wooden Dewar’s whiskey box, and squints at the letters. They fall into slants like heavy metal logos. He explains that the inscription begins with an appeal to the gods, and ends with a benediction: “May you have plentiful water, plentiful bread, and may you eat a good meal.” But there is a word in the middle of the gravestone that Rilly does not know. “It is guess work,” he says, “I’m not sure if this adjective means supreme or something else.”

In late 2016, Rilly found a painted stele that had fallen between the bricks of a funerary chapel at Sedeinga and was shielded from sand storms and rain. The top of the stone is decorated with a sun disk encircled by a pair of golden yellow cobras, and surrounded by a pair of red wings. An engraved line separating the illustration from the text is blue — a rare pigment. And the text includes a word Rilly has never before seen. Based on languages spoken in the region today, he suspects it’s a second term for the sun — one for the god of the sun as opposed to the physical sun, the star.

Rilly is desperate to find more text so that he can narrow down the meanings of more words, and decode the stories they tell about Nubian religion. He feels there must be a buried city near the temples, where our ancestors might have left notes on papyrus. This month, Rilly’s team will drag a magnetometer around the region to search for signs of a settlement buried beneath farms along the Nile or the surrounding encrusted land. The boxy machine calculates the magnetic signal at the surface of the ground, and compares it to the signal two meters below. If the density between the spots is different, the point is assigned a medium-gray to black shade on a map of the region, indicating that something irregular lies underground.

Rilly also seeks the remains of a Kushite temple referred to in the stele he’s decoded thus far. “There are at least 15 mentions of Isis, as well as the god of the sun and the god of the moon,” Rilly says. “We know there was a Kushite cult here, and a cult cannot exist without a temple.”

M odern-day Nubians have heard tales about ancient Nubia, passed down through the generations. And whether or not they descend directly from the Kushites, the past is inextricably intertwined with their identity. They’ve grown up amid fallen statues, temples, and pyramids. On holy days, families from the Nile River town of Karima hike up the sandy side of Jebel Barkal, a holy mountain that is distinguished by a 250-foot spired pinnacle that was decorated with etchings perhaps 3,400 years ago. As the sun sets, the view can only be described as biblical, stretching from the green banks of the Nile to a dozen temples in the shadow of the mountain, to pyramids on the horizon.

When ancient Egyptians conquered the region, they identified Jebel Barkal as the residence of the god Amun, who was believed to help renew life each year when the Nile flooded. They carved a temple into its base, and illustrated the walls with gods and goddesses. And when ancient Nubians regained control, they converted the holy mountain into a place for royal coronations, and constructed pyramids for royalty beside it.

There is another holy mountain further north on the Nile, in a town where Ali Osman Mohamed Salih, a 72-year old professor of archaeology and Nubian studies at the University of Khartoum, was born. His parents taught him that God lives in the mountain, and that because people come from God, they too are made of the mountain. This logic links the present with the past, and a people with a place. Salih says it means, “You are as old as the mountain, and nobody can get you out of this land.”

Salih is concerned that three new hydroelectric dams that Sudan’s government has planned along the Nile might do just that — along with drown Nubian artifacts. According to an assessment by Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, the reservoir created by one planned dam near the town of Kajbar would flood more than 500 archeological sites, including more than 1,600 rock etchings and drawings dating from the Neolithic period through medieval times. Estimates from activists in Sudan suggest that hundreds of thousands of people could be displaced by the dams.

Salih has protested Nile River dams before. While passing through Egypt on his way back home in 1967, he was detained in Cairo for his open opposition to the Aswan High Dam near the border of Sudan in Egypt. The dam created a 300-mile long reservoir that submerged hundreds of archeological sites, although the most grandiose were relocated to museums. It also forced more than 100,000 people — many of them Nubians — from their homes. Governments of countries along the Nile justify hydroelectric dams by pointing to a need for electricity. Today, two-thirds of Sudan’s population lacks it. However, history shows that those whose lives are uprooted are not always those who benefit from electricity and the profit it generates.


Bronze Chariot Fittings

The ancient practice of including implements and animals important to daily life in burials ensured a comfortable afterlife for deceased ancestors and showed them respect. From the beginning of the Shang dynasty in about 1600 BCE, the burials of nobles and rulers often included chariots and horses. While the horses and wooden chariots have long since decayed, many of the bronze chariot fittings survive. These ornamental fittings were cast with great skill to achieve intricate detail and feature motifs borrowed from bronze vessels of the time.


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