Did the Greeks Help Sculpt China's Terracotta Warriors?

New analysis and DNA evidence suggests the 8,000 life-sized figures in emperor Qin Shi Huang's necropolis owe their inspiration to the Greeks

By Jason Daley / SmithsonianMag

In 1974, farmers digging a well uncovered one of the world’s most extensive and baffling archaeological sites, the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first ruler to unite, mainly through force, the warring kingdoms of China to become its first Emperor.


But one feature of the sprawling necropolis, which A.R. Williams at National Geographic reports covers some 38 square miles, is almost beyond belief. The emperor, who died circa 210 B.C., was buried with an estimated 8,000 life-size and highly detailed warrior statues made of terra cotta. Now, a new theory suggests the statues were inspired by Greek art, and that ancient Greek sculptors may have made it to China more than 1,500 years before Marco Polo. Researchers have evidence to back it up; mitochondrial DNA shows Europeans interbred with the local population around the time the statues were made. The evidence will be detailed in a new documentary produced by National Geographic and the BBC.

Hannah Furness at The Independent reports that prior to the appearance of the terra cotta warriors, Chinese sculptors did not have a tradition of producing life-size statues. The leap from having no experience to creating armies of the artworks indicates they may have had some outside influence or help.

Lukas Nickel, chair of Asian Art History at the University of Vienna, tells Furness that he believes the Chinese artists may have encountered examples of Greek art, which made its way into Asia after the reign of Alexander the Great, whose empire in the 4th century B.C. spanned all the way to present-day India. “I imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals,” Nickel says.

The DNA evidence comes from remains from sites in the Xinjian province dating to the time period of the first emperor. They show that Chinese and Europeans were likely encountering each other at that early date. “We now have evidence that close contact existed between the first emperor’s China and the west before the formal opening of the Silk Road. This is far earlier than we formerly thought,” says Li Xiuzhen, Senior Archaeologist at the museum that houses the terra cotta warriors. “We now think the Terra cotta Army, the acrobats and the bronze sculptures found on site, have been inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art.”

Other discoveries in the tomb suggest that the death of China’s first emperor unleashed a bloody palace intrigue that even George R.R. Martin's imagination could not match. One group of skeletons believed to be deceased members of the royal family, includes a skull that appears to have been split by a bolt from a crossbow shot at close range. The find gives credibility to an early Chinese historian’s account of the unraveling of the Qin clan, which said the family's young princes were killed by a plotting sibling, reports Williams.

The theory that the Chinese were interacting with Greeks or at least Greek culture at such an early date is not too far fetched. Maev Kennedy at The Guardian reports that though the Silk Road between China and Europe was formally established in the 3rd century A.D., Chinese accounts claim Roman traders arrived well before that. As she points out, during the rule of the First Emperor of Rome, Romans were already wearing Chinese silk.