Greeks, Terracotta Soldiers, and Research by Documentary

Terracotta army, via wikimedia commons
Since folks so loved the media-exaggerated report of Chinese in Roman London (which is not, as I've mentioned, what the data actually say), it's no surprise that an upcoming documentary has been getting press, since it appears to tie the ancient Greeks to the first Qin emperor in China.

The claim, in an upcoming BBC/Nat Geo documentary airing tomorrow(?) is that the sudden artistic realism of the terracotta army can be explained by early contact between Greeks and Chinese. It doesn't seem to matter which outlet you read; they all say basically the same thing. The Guardian might have a slight edge in terms of facts, so here's a link.

Since there's nothing on which I can base a critique, here are my disparate thoughts about it:

1) This appears to be research-by-documentary. At least, that's the way the media are covering it. There's no link to a peer-reviewed study (but allusions to some; see below), just musings by a small number of purported experts in the field (who I assume appear in the documentary). For a primer on why research-by-documentary is incredibly problematic, here's a recent peer-reviewed article, which uses as an example the "finding" of syphilis in pre-Columbian Europe -- that "finding", which has never been tested, proven, or peer-reviewed, has made its way into research literature.

[ETA: There is research on which this is based, according to multiple sources on Twitter. I'm glad to hear it. The fact that the media is covering a documentary, though, still makes it sound like research-by-documentary, which is unfortunate if the evidence is solid.]

2) The articles refer to "European" DNA as one of the lines of evidence that there may have been Greeks in China. This DNA comes from the studies of the Xinjiang (Tarim) mummies from central China (Uighur Autonomous Region), which was a melting-pot 4,000 years ago. I have read the DNA studies on these remains, and they're quite interesting, as I've written about before. While most of the haplogroups correspond with South Siberia, there were two western Eurasia ones. Thousands of years before the supposed Greek-Chinese contact, then, the DNA shows admixture in the maternal line.  But this is not terribly surprising - I mean, the more DNA analyses we do, the more we learn about admixture throughout Europe and Asia, going back to Neandertals, Denisovans, and the like. It's not surprising to find western European DNA in the Tarim Basin. What the DNA doesn't say is that Greeks were in Xi'an China in the 2nd century BC... because it can't. Isotopes from skeletons could, but I'm unaware of any evidence to this effect.

[ETA: There are also a few other articles on DNA from the Tarim basin, all of which seem to have the same basic conclusions.]

3) But honestly, my main problem with the documentary -- or, rather, with media reports of it -- is that it sounds unbelievably racist. A hook that's repeated in many of these articles is that there was contact between East and West "before Marco Polo." This is only revolutionary to the folks who think that Europeans discovered and invented everything and that we're the best because... ethnocentrism, I guess. Seriously, who actually thinks a dude whose namesake is a lame kids' pool game was the first European to contact China?

Initially, the most compelling evidence for me was the finding in ancient China of some bronze objects made with the lost-wax casting technique that the Greeks are relatively famous for.  But a quick search in the literature shows that this technique long predates them, going back as early as 5,700 BC. I'm not sure why we wouldn't expect the technique to migrate from Israel through the Tarim basin into central China within five millennia.

But finally and most importantly, why are we assuming that the Chinese didn't independently invent the idea of realism in art? That maybe emperor Qin wanted realistic warriors for his tomb, so they were made? I mean, it's not like the Greeks sauntered into central China and said, 'Look here, folks, these statues don't look exactly like you. Let us teach you what you actually look like.' And who says that realism is the pinnacle of the artistic tradition anyway? Oh, right, Western art history scholars over the centuries because of course "we" have the "best" art. (Don't believe me?  Check out the Independent, which says of Greek art "their work has rarely been bettered.")

[ETA: I've read a buuuuunch of media coverage of the documentary, and really all of it [the media coverage] sounds like Western exceptionalism. That's why I'm skeptical of a proposal of "Greeks teaching the Chinese to make sculptures" -- because years of graduate education in classics and anthro made me question romanization, Western exceptionalism, artistic realism, and a multitude of other concepts that we're pretty much taught from childhood here in the U.S. at least.]

At any rate, maybe the documentary addresses all of these issues.  Or maybe the media is not fairly reporting what's in the documentary.  But the "news" items I've read are all deeply problematic, stringing together a flawed understanding of biology with a flawed understanding of art history to arrive at a conclusion that makes for clickable headlines but that is far from the last word on the matter.

10/19/16 update -- According to a headline at Shanghai Daily, "Chinese archaeologist refutes BBC report on Terracotta Warriors":
"I think the terracotta warriors may be inspired by Western culture, but were uniquely made by the Chinese. BBC overstated my remarks about Western inspiration and ignored main points I made during the interview," Li told Xinhua. ... "I am an archaeologist, and I value evidence. I've found no Greek names on the backs of Terracotta Warriors, which supports my idea that there was no Greek artisan training the local sculptors," Li said.
These quotes are exactly what I'd expect from an archaeologist. As I've said in the Chinese-in-London piece, I don't doubt the premise that there were significant east-west connections during the time of the Greeks and Romans. But, as Carl Sagan was fond of saying, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. That evidence - specifically for individual people found far from home - has not yet piled up, although I suspect it will soon through DNA and isotopes, bolstered by archaeological context (such as the central Asian person found in southeastern Imperial Italy).


'Unbelievably racist'? Unbelievably naive on your part. If the Greeks suggested this hypothesis sure you may have a point, but they didn't. No one in the west put forth such theory but it was a Chinese archeologist. Are the Chinese not permitted to put a theory out for historical debate and scientific investigation or is that the exclusive perogrative of western academics? The Chinese archeologist has put out a theory worth scientific investigation.
I never said it's not worthwhile to investigate the theory. The problem is that it's a documentary, not scientific investigation, and that the media are covering it with old, ethnocentric tropes about the primacy of the Western world.
ianwjones said…
"No one in the west put forth such theory but it was a Chinese archeologist."

There are several Chinese archaeologists on the team, but it seems like Lukas Nickel put forth the theory in a sole-authored paper in BSOAS a few years ago ( I haven't read his paper or seen the documentary, and 3rd century BC China is not my area of expertise, but it does seem like the assumption here is that this isn't just "influence," but that, well, "the Greeks sauntered into central China" (see, for example: "I imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals").
Philosophy Gr said…
Good point. I've heard arguments against this significant research, but these are beyond imagination or self-control..
Police State said…
"This is only revolutionary to the folks who think that Europeans discovered and invented everything and that we're the best because... ethnocentrism"

No it is not because of ethnocentrism. It is truly because out of all of the civilizations it is Western Civilization that has had the most advancements in both quantity and quality. There is nothing racist about it, it's just the way things turned out. Now National Geographic had an interesting documentary some several years ago called "Guns, Germs, Steel" that explores why Western Civilization was able to advance so much more rapidly than other civilizations around the world.

It's not because of race, it is simply because of a combination of location and historical events. Most of them not really even nefarious.

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