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Buried Treasure

By Susan Graham — February 16, 2010 3 min read
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We drove up to the National Geographic Museum to see the Chinese Terra Cotta Warriors Exhibit on Sunday. For 2,000 years that army of over 7,000 stood at attention, guarding the tomb of the first emperor of China, buried and forgotten. Since their discovery in 1974, 1,000 of them have been excavated. For the last two years, 20 of them have toured the world like rock stars. As I stood there, inches from those ancient faces, so incredibly lifelike and individual, questions keep popping in my head.

Who were these men, who seemed to have been frozen in time? Who made them? How did they do that? Were they honored or angry to be working on the project? What were the economic, political and social implications of this huge undertaking? What similarities are there between this tomb and the Egyptian pyramids? What kind of discipline must it take to know that the tomb and its treasures are there but to leave it undisturbed while waiting for new preservation techniques? Why does there seem to be a universal craving for immortality?

Imagine---a thousand figures and thousands still to go and yet so far no two alike. Were they depictions of real people or were they simply constructs of ancient craftsmen? Early in the excavation of the terra cotta army it was believed that every single figure was a separate and unique creation, but as the figures have been unearthed and restored, researchers have discovered that the army of warriors was a semi-custom production. Among the 1,000 excavated warriors, the heads appear to have been mass produced; cast in eight standard molds which were then individualized with an assortment of lips, noses, ears, and facial hair. Bodies came in a few basic shapes and with an assortment of arms and legs and accessories to be attached. Humm, it seems that Eli Whitney didn’t create the concept of interchangeable parts and Henry Ford didn’t exactly “invent” the assembly line.

Before Sunday, I didn’t know that Qin Shi Huang was the First Emperor of China. I didn’t know that under his reign the warring states were unified, the law codified, the currency standardized, the characters in Chinese script formalized, and the original earthen Great Wall completed. Since Sunday, snow days have granted me time to invest hours introducing myself to the first emperor and his short but influential rule. During my years at school the only things I learned about Chinese history was that Marco Polo went there for silk, that the emperor had dragons on his clothes and a dangly mustache, that the Chinese invented gun powder, that the women bound their feet, that the Communists took over after World War II, and that during the Cultural Revolution Mao made everyone wear those very unattractive khaki pantsuits.

I am frequently amazed by how much we don’t know. In a world of ever expanding information, I wonder how on earth we can make wise choices about what is critical for our students to know and how we can get it all squished down and packed into a curriculum. I think we have to accept that mastering all the facts is not a viable option. There is simply too much information and it changes too quickly. It seems to matter more that we insure our students have a grasp of basic skills, that we encourage them to think critically, and that we give them space and support as they explore their own interests.

Emperor Qin ordered an underground kingdom and an army to guard it, but within a few decades of his death at 49 his empire crumbled. Two thousand years later, his clay army has managed to achieve a degree of the immortality that he craved. I looked into the expressions and I wondered what might have made the face of a infantryman seem peaceful and of a general to look burdened and of an official to appear smug. On the backside of a fragment I saw a hand print in the clay, and I wondered whose hand had left that impression and did he ever consider that 2,000 years later it would still be there. Who developed those techniques, created the faces, organized the assembly, and then marked them with their stamp? I would like to know the story of the farmers who, in 1974, found chunks of terra cotta as they were digging a well and, instead of pitching them to the side, were curious enough to wonder, “What is this and what does it mean?”

They weren’t looking for ancient artifacts. It wasn’t time on task. It was off the curriculum map. But it was arguably one of the greatest archeological discoveries in history. What if, with the best intentions, we do such a good job of keeping our children focused on what we think they ought to know that we forget to inspire them to wonder about what they don’t know?

Wouldn’t it be great if school could be more like a treasure hunt?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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