So is it permitted to acknowledge that one is just a teensy bit underwhelmed by what is reputed to be one of the great sites – and sights – of the ancient world? We have been in Xi’an since Monday evening, where we have been joined by our son Nick who is finishing up his studies at Nottingham University at Ningbo. He too flew here on Monday, in part to meet us after a year of Skype and Whatsapp, but also to go with us to see the Terracotta Warriors which were discovered in 1974 just outside Xi’an. Don’t get me wrong, these tomb companions of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BCE, are definitely worth seeing, but perhaps it’s hard for anything to live up to the hype they have attracted, especially when the crowds are relentless, the sun is broiling and you are suffering from a head cold.
We contemplated making our own way to the site which is some 40km from central Xi’an, but in the end opted for a cheap-ish day tour. Our guide was enthusiastic but her English was almost entirely incomprehensible, and I realised once again that I was not born to go round museums or archaeological sites in a briskly marshalled group of more than 30 people.
Our minibus dropped us off at an unofficial car park near to the entrance to the theme park surroundings of the Terracotta Warriors. Then we walked for what seemed like an age to a first gate where we had been warned that we would have to show our passports as well as the tickets supplied to us. Not so, but we did have to put our bags through security screening which, as is many other contexts, seemed not actually to have anyone viewing the x-ray images. We walked a little further and had to repeat the procedure, although it was entirely unclear what the difference might be between the two boundaries.
Once inside the main compound the visitor has a choice about the order in which to visit the three large ‘pits’, each of which is covered by a kind of aircraft hanger construction. We were guided first to Pit no 2, which is still being excavated. The work takes place at night, after the gawping visitors have gone, and the process will last at least another forty years. Peering over a rail down into trenches of sand-coloured earth, you can see some of the warriors broken into pieces. And while it’s obvious in retrospect, the surprise is that the warriors do not come out of the ground perfectly formed as they were two thousand two hundred years ago – each one has to be meticulously reconstructed from thousands of fragments of baked clay.
To the side of this pit there are four of the major figures displayed in glass cases, and these are deeply impressive. Crowds of other tourists, the vast majority of whom are Chinese, hustle you with their mobiles and cameras as you try to stand and stare. Then it is on to the smaller Pit no 3, which seems to have been a reconstruction of a battle headquarters. This is fully excavated, although a good number of the sixty or so figures lack heads. Also, the four horses we can see look very modern and much too perfect to have been reconstructed from excavated elements, but our guide assures us that every part of the figures we can see has come out of the ground. Our sense is that rather more creative reconstruction than that has been going on.
The figures were never meant to be seen by anyone, but rather were created to be buried with the Emperor to guard him in the world beyond this one. Seemingly, the more lifelike they were, the more effective they would be at this task. And they do have a powerful sense of verisimilitude, making it all too tempting to believe that the faces were shaped by craftsmen slaves using one of their mates as a model. The slaves were then apparently sacrificed, as were some 300 concubines when the Emperor was finally laid to rest here.
We get to see the site of the Emperor’s actual tomb later, which is a very big mound of earth, as yet undisturbed. In part, the archaeologists simply have not got round to this yet, but there is also concern that the very high levels of mercury in the earth suggest that there may be booby traps of some kind lying in wait for the modern grave robber. All of which feels very Indiana Jones.
After Pit no 3 it’s on to the climax, the first Pit where from one vantage point you can see around a thousand of the figures – and this most definitely has the ‘wow’ factor. For a few minutes you can forget the questions about reconstruction, the swarming crowds and their constantly clicking cameras, and also the ways in which the modern Chinese state has used the warriors to support their vision of the country’s history. Here you are faced with profound traces from a past, traces that feel so close to us because of their shared form as individuals and yet so, so distant. There’s a 20-minute film to see about it all, but I skip that and spend time with these ‘men’ from a time and a place that is impossible to imagine.
The site has a last pleasure to offer. In the gift shop, seated at a desk where he can apparently often be found, is one of the peasant farmers who discovered the ancient site when back in the dog days of the Cultural Revolution he was trying to sink a new well. Yang Zhifa is an old man now, but between mouthfuls of his lunch, he is happy to shake the hand and sign the guidebook of just one more anonymous tourist who has been attracted to the outskirts of Xi’an by his happy accident that day nearly forty years ago.