Were the Terracotta Warriors Based on Actual People?

To answer that question, archaeologists are looking at variations in the soldiers’ ears

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Lonely Planet Images / Corbis

When farmers digging a well in 1974 discovered the Terracotta Army, commissioned by China’s first emperor two millennia ago, the sheer numbers were staggering: an estimated 7,000 soldiers, plus horses and chariots. But it’s the huge variety of facial features and expressions that still puzzle scholars. Were standard parts fit together in a Mr. Potato Head approach or was each warrior sculpted to be unique, perhaps a facsimile of an actual person? How could you even know?

Short answer: The ears have it. Andrew Bevan, an archaeologist at University College London, along with colleagues, used advanced computer analyses to compare 30 warrior ears photographed at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China to find out whether, statistically speaking, the auricular ridges are as “idiosyncratic” and “strongly individual” as they are in people.

Turns out no two ears are alike—raising the possibility that the figures are based on a real army of warriors. Knowing for sure will take time: There are over 13,000 ears to go.

Aural Elegance

(UCL Institute of Archaeology, UK)

With a rounded top and a rounded lobe, this ear is among the most pleasing to the eye. The rib that runs up the center of the outer ear, called the antihelix, forks into two distinct prongs, framing a depression called the triangular fossa.

Lobe Like No Other

(UCL Institute of Archaeology, UK)

Among the odder in shape, this ear has a surprisingly squared lobe, a heavy top fold (known as the helix), no discernible triangular fossa and a more pronounced tragus (that flat protrusion of cartilage that protects the ear canal).

Ear Marks

(UCL Institute of Archaeology, UK)

This ear belongs to a warrior with the inscription “Xian Yue.” “Yue” likely refers to the artisan who oversaw its production, presumably from Xianyang, the capital city. Researchers haven’t yet found any correlation between ear shape and artisan.