Archaeologist who restored first terracotta warriors
Zhao Kangmin, who has died aged 81, was the local museum curator who first recognised the significance of fragments of pottery unearthed in March 1974 by farmers digging a well in China’s Shaanxi province.
He went on to piece together the first members of the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (220-210BC), the first emperor of China’s feudal dynasties.
The farmers did not know they were digging above the emperor’s buried mausoleum and when, some four metres down, they came across the head of a life-size pottery statue, they assumed it was from a bodhisattva figure (a sort of saint) from an old Buddhist temple. As they continued to dig, more heads, along with pieces of limbs and torsos, emerged, most of which they left lying on the ground.
Zhao heard of the finds about a month later and hopped on his bike to visit the site. ‘‘I went to the site with another officer,’’ he recalled later. ‘‘Because we were so excited, we rode on our bicycles so fast it felt as if we were flying.’’
By the time he arrived, villagers had already taken some pieces home as trophies. Children were playing games with other fragments. But Zhao immediately understood the potential significance of the find.
The terracotta pieces, some as small as a fingernail, were loaded on to trucks and taken to his museum, where he began the laborious task of piecing them together. Within two months he had reconstructed two life-size warriors, and went on to construct two more, plus a horse.
But he was initially nervous about reporting the find; 1974 was the tail-end of Mao’s
Cultural Revolution. As a historian of China’s ancient emperors, Zhao was regarded as ideologically suspect, and had been forced to criticise himself for encouraging the revival of feudalism.
By chance, however, a journalist visiting his family in the area heard about the discovery and wrote a short article that came to the attention of the authorities. They immediately sent a team of archaeologists, and excavations soon began in earnest.
They would go on to unearth thousands of figures – infantrymen, officers, archers and charioteers – each with unique features, costumes, weapons and even hairstyles.
In 1990 Zhao was officially recognised by China’s State Council as an expert who had made outstanding contributions to his field.
He is survived by his wife and two sons. – Telegraph Group