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3D Imaging Could Solve the Mystery of China's Terracotta Army

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A cache of over 8,000 life-sized warrior statues was discovered in the 1970s near China's ancient capital of Xi'an. Each terracotta figure has unique facial features, which has led to one of the ancient world's greatest mysteries. Who are these people? Are they modeled on an actual army?

Photo by Maros

Now scientists are using 3D imaging of the thousands of soldiers to analyze how they were made, as well as how different their features really are. Speaking to Nature magazine, archaeologist Andrew Bevan asked, "Are the warriors portraits of individual people? Or are they a 'Mr. Potato Head' approach to individualism, where you slap on different noses and moustaches and ears?"


Bevan's team took high-quality digital photographs of 30 of the warriors from different angles, and fed them into an algorithm that created 3D images and analyzed them for similarities. This approach is becoming more common in archaeology, where researchers want to study objects without disturbing them. In this case, all they need to do is take photographs and don't even need to touch the statues.


Photo by Robin Chen, via Wikipedia

The army is believed to have been created in the 300s BCE, and includes horses and chariots as well as soldiers. They were discovered in massive funeral pits created for the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, and include other members of court such as artists and political officials. Now it seems they have been modeled on actual people, or at least intended to be unique individuals.


Writes Ewan Callaway in Nature magazine:

In a pilot study published on 4 June, Bevan's team modelled the faces of 30 warriors and found that no two ears were identical — evidence that the army consists of individuals (A. Bevan et al.J. Archaeol. Sci.; 2014). The researchers compared ears because these are unique and may have been modelled on real people. But they plan to analyse other anatomical features to see whether the soldiers vary in ethni­city or bear the hallmarks of distinct craftsmen. Bevan stresses that the work is at an early stage.


Above you can see two digitized ears — one in green, the other white — and it's quite clear that their shapes are different. We still may not know exactly who these people were, but it appears that they were at least designed to look as if they were as different from each other as living people can be.


Read more in Nature