Tidewater Traveler - May 2008

Beyond the Bottom of the Well


George Sellers

    Four horses stand abreast, linked together with a network of straps and hitches. The quartet is focused forward with the two outer ones looking slightly to their respective sides. They are motionless yet alert, like they are awaiting the imminent slap of leather or the spoken command of a driver from the chariot behind them. Elaborate bridles and harnesses bedecked with gold, silver and jewels adorn their brownish gray, dappled bodies. I’m standing close enough to stare into the eye of the left-most horse in the team. The eye doesn’t quiver, twitch or blink; his stare is steadier than mine. His ears are short, erect and focused forward.
     The equine bodies look strong – pronounced muscular contours seem both tense and calm at the same time. A few feet behind the four-horse team stands a bronze chariot. The vehicle is covered with intricate gold and silver adornments. The chariot appears not to be a single casting of bronze, but rather looks to be made of hundreds of interconnecting parts and pieces – like a large, ancient bronze Lego set. At the moment the chariot is empty, but the horses appear no less ready for action in the absence of a driver.
     The driver is missing, but there is no absence of people observing this marvelous static scene. The shallow, roped-off stage is surrounded by amazed and gaping tourists: tourists who want to touch but can’t, tourists who want to photograph, but can’t; tourists who want to video, but can’t; tourists who want to soak in the experience because it is like none they have ever witnessed.
     Such is the experience of just a few moments during a day-long visit to the site of one of the most incredible archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. Taking the time to read an informational plaque nearby, I confirm my suspicion that the 2,200-year-old chariot is made of multiple components. In fact, I learn that the carriage has about 3,400 parts, and weighs about two and one-half tons because it is made mostly of bronze. There are over 1,700 pieces of gold and silver ornaments on the vehicle.
     To envision the discovery of this remarkable piece of Chinese history, I ask you to engage your imagination. Imagine - you and your family live in the small, rural village of Xihyang, located in the Yanzhai Township of the Lintong District. Your village is just a few miles from the small city of Xian in the Shaanxi Province of Central China. It is a dry but breezy morning in mid-March of the year 1974. The arid, prevailing winds from the Gobi Desert region hundreds of miles to the north and west have produced droughtlike conditions. Water for the village livestock has been in short supply for some time now. You and a couple of other young men have been directed to go to a field just outside of town to deepen an existing water-well. Your work site is about a mile from an earthen mound known to be the Mausoleum of the Emporer Qin Shihuang. You and your co-workers take turns pounding, picking at rocks, shoveling in an effort to deepen the well. As you work you begin to notice broken pieces of pottery figures in the soil. And, as they say, the rest is history.
     Under the protection of the Chinese government, archaeological excavation and manuscript research determined that the area beneath the well is really an oblong pit in which were buried thousands of life-sized figures of warriors and horses from the Qin Dynasty. The vast majority of the army of statues is fashioned from molded clay - terra-cotta. Hence the name – Terra-Cotta Army. In 1976, two more pits were discovered about sixty yards away from the original discovery. They became known as Pits #1, #2 and #3 and in total covered an area exceeding 200,000 square feet, or nearly five acres.
     Terra-Cotta Army Pit #1 is protected by an arched-roof building similar in size and style to the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center in Salisbury, Maryland. If you are familiar with that facility, picture walking into the arena, but instead of seeing an athletic or performance floor with bleachers and a stage, you see the entire interior as an open excavation. A walkway around the perimeter of the arena gives visitors the opportunity to view the marvel from all sides.
     Some aspects of Pit #1 are not obvious without doing a little reading about the discovery. The pit covered by the arched-roof building is about 700 feet long; 190 feet wide and about 16 feet deep. It is built like a multi-passage tunnel formed of earthen partitions and wooden beams. The floors in the tunnels are paved with bricks. It is estimated that about 6,000 terra-cotta warriors will eventually be unearthed just in Pit #1.
     Each warrior appears to be different. They vary by height, posture, attire and most especially their facial features differ. They stand shoulder to shoulder in long columns, arranged as if in preparation for battle. Some hold bows and arrows; some carry cross-bows; others have spears and daggers. Most are outfitted in protective armor; more accurately I should say that the terra-cotta moldings resemble body armor. Amazing detail is still visible in facial features and adornment.
     Among the columns of foot soldiers are seen dozens of horses and chariots. Most of the horses and chariots are fashioned from terra-cotta, but a couple of sets are made almost entirely from bronze. The bronze statues have been removed to a separate observation and preservation area.
     As in most tourist spots around the world, you should be prepared to pay a little extra beyond the general admission in order to enter the building where the bronze chariots and horses are displayed, but I assure you that seeing them is well worth a few extra Yuan. Expect also to meet the farmer – the farmer who was digging the well when the pottery shards were discovered. I found him at a card table outside the building wielding not a pick or shovel, but a black “Sharpie.”
     He was, of course, most willing to sign one of the picture books stacked on the table and pocket a few more of my Yuan for the service. There is a bit (actually a lot) of a skepticism in me; for even though I paid for and brought home his genuine “Jang Henry,” I suspect that there is a cadre of “farmers” who “discovered” the Terra-Cotta Army and they probably take turns working shifts at the card table outside the museum.
     Skeptical about “Farmer Jang” – yes, but no skepticism whatever about the incredible Terra-Cotta Army and the Bronze Chariots and Horses. It would be sad indeed to visit the People’s Republic of China and not take a couple of days to journey to Xian to see the most incredible archaeological find of the twentieth century.
     A trip to Xian is included in most guided tours of China. Its location makes it a logical stopover when traveling from the ultra-urban Beijing toward the embarkation point of a downstream cruise on the Yangtze River - an article for another time!
     May all of your travels be happy and safe!

George Sellers and his wife Priscilla are Certified Travel Counselors and Accredited Cruise Counselors who own Travel Selections by Priscilla and George, Inc. and the popular travel Web site www.sellerstravel.com