A veil of mystery surrounds China’s terracotta army. Located in the mausoleum of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, the army consists of more than 8,000 sculpted soldiers, horses, and chariots. Since archaeologists discovered them in 1974, the stone soldiers have raised many questions. Who do the soldiers represent? And are they modeled after real individuals? Now, thanks to digital-photo software, some of the mysteries might be solved.
Historians have long debated whether the 2,200-year-old collection of statues depicts real individuals. “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?” asks Andrew Bevan, an archaeologist at University College London.
Bevan is part of a team that is using a new technology to find out. Known as “computer vision,” this technology allows experts to study excavation sites without damaging any of the delicate artifacts. First, they photograph each soldier from multiple angles. Then they use the photos to create a digital three-dimensional map of the surface of the sculpture.
The team studied and compared 30 of the warrior’s ears and discovered that no two were identical. This suggests that each of the soldier sculptures may depict a specific individual who actually lived. Archaeologists will keep analyzing other features before reaching a conclusion.
Computer-vision software is opening up many doors. Heinrich Mallison, a paleontologist at Berlin’s Natural History Museum, explains that this new technology is fast and cheap. “It means we can expect to see entire collections of hundreds of thousands of objects digitally available in a decade,” Mallison explains. Soon, computer vision will make important artifacts available for everyone to view and study from anywhere in the world.