Fact Check

Does This Pic Show True Colors of Terracotta Soldiers Before 'Rapid Deterioration'?

Thousands of life-sized statues are thought to remain housed in the 2,000-year-old tomb.

Published July 4, 2021

Image courtesy of Screengrab/Reddit
A photograph shared to Reddit in June 2021 showed the original, colorful state of China’s terracotta soldiers before environmental conditions rapidly deteriorated residual paint.

Known as the “eighth wonder” of the world, China’s thousands-strong Terracotta Army has mystified scientists in the decades that followed its 1974 discovery — including how the life-sized sculptures have maintained their pristine level of preservation for more than 2,000 years.

A photograph shared to Reddit on June 29, 2021, laid fodder to the mystery when it claimed to show a “freshly excavated” pit with 2,000-year-old terracotta warriors “still showing the original color scheme before rapid deterioration.” The photograph was also shared on Twitter by the account Historical Artifacts and is real.

A reverse-image search of the photograph in question returned dozens of results, many of which were uploaded to the photo-sharing website Flickr (see here, here, and here). One such photograph was posted by a person who said that the picture was taken “of a picture” from the Pit 2 exhibit at the Museum of the Qin Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses in Xi’an, China.

Described by UNESCO as “masterpieces of realism,” more than 8,000 soldiers and hundreds of chariots, horses, and cavalry horses make up what is known as the Terracotta Army, a funerary sculptural army made in the likeness of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, in 210 B.C. to protect the ruler in his afterlife.

“As the tomb of the first emperor who unified the country, it [the tomb] is the largest in Chinese history, with a unique standard and layout, and a large number of exquisite funeral objects,” wrote the heritage foundation. “It testifies to the founding of the first unified empire — the Qin Dynasty, which during the 3rd BCE, wielded unprecedented political, military and economic power and advanced the social, cultural and artistic level of the empire.”

In the more than two millennia since its creation, the army had been buried both by a fire that caused wooden structures that housed the army to collapse and by up to 16 feet of soil moved by natural processes. But in 1974, local farmers came across some of the sculptures when they were digging for a well. In the years since, ground-penetrating radar surveys have shown that the burial region measures more than 21-square-miles — or about half the size of San Francisco. At best estimates, nearly 200 pits house over 2,000 excavated warriors, though experts believe thousands of additional soldiers are waiting to be unearthed.

And Pit 2, where the photograph was taken, is one of the more intriguing of the many excavated pits, according to a project published by the University of Southern California. Arranged in an L-shape, each section of the pit is comprised of different soldiers and is generally theorized to be a large camp or staging area rather than made to resemble an actual army.

Not only does the army represent an archaeological find but it is also a special conservation challenge. At the time of their creation, the statues were painted with what scientists believe to be a polychrome lacquer that, when exposed to the elements, irreversibly loses its coloration, according to a 2003 study published in the journal Angewandte Chemi International Edition. Today, the exposed statues exhibit their original pre-painted beige coloration but at the time of their 3rd-century construction, each sculpture was intricately painted to appear lifelike. (Check out this feature by National Geographic to see the reconstructed colors of the warriors.)   

But as the figures are exhumed from their earthly grave, the glaze covering their vibrantly hued colors dries out and begins to flake and fall off — a preservation issue that scientists continue to grapple with in the decades following the discovery. As such, we rate this claim as “True.”

Madison Dapcevich is a freelance contributor for Snopes.