Jan. 29, 2007
China’s Terracotta Army has mystified scholars since the 8,099 clay warriors and horses were first discovered in Emperor Qin Shihuang’s mausoleum in 1974. The figures, meant to protect the emperor in the afterlife, were buried with him around 210-209 B.C.
At least one mystery about the imposing faux army recently was solved. It is now known that the horses and warriors were constructed in different locations, based on analysis of pollen found in fragments of terracotta that were collected from the clay figures.
The findings have been accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
"When the plants were flowering in the time of the Qin Dynasty 2000 years ago, the pollen flew in the air and fell in the clay, even if the pollen could not be seen with the naked eye," lead author Ya-Qin Hu told Discovery News.
Hu, a scientist in the Institute of Botany at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Sciences, and colleagues crushed the collected terracotta fragments, washed them and performed gravity separation. The resulting organic residue was mounted in glycerol and observed under a powerful microscope.
Using these methods, the researchers identified and recovered 32 different types of pollen. The pollen found in the terracotta warrior sample was mostly from herbaceous plants, such as members of the mustard and cabbage family, the genus of plants that includes sagebrush and wormwood, and the family of flowering plants that includes quinoa, spinach, beets and chard.
The pollen detected in the terracotta horse sample, however, mostly came from trees, such as pine, kamala and ginkgo.
Hu explained that pollen in clay often is destroyed after objects are fired. Some granules survived in the terracotta, however, because the figures appear to have been fired at inconsistent temperatures with parts of the objects —especially thicker portions — not undergoing complete firing.
Based on the pollen differences, the researchers conclude that the horses were produced near the mausoleum, while the warriors were made at an as-of-yet unknown site away from the region.
The horses are large (over 6 feet long) and heavy (nearly 441 pounds) compared to the warriors, which weigh around 330 pounds. The horses also are more delicate, given their relatively fragile legs. The scientists therefore theorize that whomever planned the Terracotta Army’s construction determined it would be easier to have the horses built closer to the destination site to minimize transport.
Michael Nylan is a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in early Chinese history.
Nylan told Discovery News that because scientific access to the terracotta figures is difficult, it would be hard at present to verify the findings.
Pollen analysis in recent years, however, has led to some remarkable discoveries, including solving murder cases and determining the origins of other artwork.
Hu said, "We believe this work may open a new window for archaeologists to consider the possibility of finding pollen in ancient terracotta or pottery, as the pollen may tell us some stories that we want to know, but that are still unknown."