On a day like this 39 years ago… serendipity and the Terracotta Army

2 April 2013

On 29 March 1974, a group of farmers digging a water well in Lintong, to the east of Xi’an, struck upon one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time. The Terracotta Army would become the icon of the 2,200 year-old city-like mausoleum of China’s First Emperor. A further four decades since its discovery, have we learned anything about serendipity?

Close up of warrior head small

Other sections of this website provide an outline of what we know about the Terracotta Army by virtue of previous work and of our ongoing research. What I would like to address here is not so much what we know today but, rather, why we know it.

Nobody can question the importance of the Terracotta Army and the broader mausoleum of the First Emperor. Its significance for archaeologists and the public alike has been realised and promoted thanks to the collaborative efforts of countless professionals who have, over the last thirty-nine years, devoted their time to excavate, conserve, study and display continuing discoveries. I feel privileged to count myself among these. It would seem obvious, therefore, that we know what we know by virtue of the human and material resources which have been put to this task.

On a day like today, however, when we commemorate the accidental discovery of a few fragments of terracotta warriors, I would like to reflect on the events that set the whole process in motion. A vivid first-hand account of its accidental discovery and the impact it made has been recorded by BBC Witness (with a contribution by our own Xiuzhen Li). The discovery of the First Emperor’s Mausoleum is one of many great archaeological discoveries made by chance. The Rosetta Stone, the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Lascaux caves are but a few more of the many paradigm-shifting archaeological finds that took place by accident. I am sure, however, that many more discoveries of comparable standing have been made by chance… but we don’t know about them. Farmers, walkers or well-diggers worldwide will surely have stumbled upon equally magnificent finds but there are no museums, no websites, no academic papers to report on them. Why is it that some accidental discoveries make it to the headlines and excite the popular imagination while others do not? The reason, I believe, is that chance and serendipity are not the same thing.

In 2004, serendipity was famously voted as one of the ten English words hardest to translate. So we are lucky to have the term… but perhaps guilty of not using it properly (and of not taking enough advantage of it). In popular language, we often equate chance with serendipity, to refer to anything that happens by accident (for example, randomly bumping into someone you hadn’t seen in a long time). When the term was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, he applied it to the heroes of a Persian tale who were always “making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”. The key issue here is that you need the ‘fortunate accident’ to take place but also, crucially, the sagacity to appreciate its significance and implications. A third practical component that is often needed for serendipity is the infrastructural support for the sagacious individual to explore and exploit the accidental discovery.

Serendipitous discoveries are of course not exclusive to archaeology. Many of the most important discoveries of all time have taken place by accident – by people who had background knowledge, a creative mind, and resources. It is easy to think of a famous (even if perhaps apocryphal) example: Newton’s apple incident, which allegedly inspired him to formulate the Theory of Gravity. Apples had been falling off trees by centuries. The apple fall was arguably necessary, but so was Newton’s brain – which enabled him to realise its importance –, as was his lab – where he refined this theory through experimentation. The same could be said of viagra or penicillin. Today we appreciate the Terracotta Army because archaeologist Yuan Zhongyi realised the importance of a stray, broken terracotta head and managed to obtain the resources for a large-scale team, research project and museum. The moral of these and many other serendipitous discoveries is that we should do more to promote serendipity by unleashing resourced, sagacious individuals and allowing them to explore outside tightly constrained, predictable agendas.

I have made similar arguments elsewhere, reflecting on the discoveries made by both archaeologists and early modern alchemists. Serendipity can be a fruitful research avenue. Perhaps we cannot create serendipitous discoveries, but we should at least allow them to happen. Most research funding today is channelled to narrowly defined research projects, often formulated scientifically in nomological-deductive fashion. Some of these research agendas, myopically focused on outcomes and feasibility, are actively preventing serendipity. Perhaps worryingly, this expectation also affects PhD students, who are obsessively forced to come up with a ‘research question’ (when not fed one by their supervisors) that must be answerable within three years. Unpredictable research of the kind often required in archaeology and history (but also useful in science) is clearly out of fashion within academia – in stark contrast with the broader society’s excitement about the joy of exploration.

We should do more to identify sagacious individuals, resource them, and let them fly in whichever directions their research takes them. Of course we cannot predict what they will find (that’s serendipity for you!) but if we give them the right environment, they may have a higher likelihood to arrive at discoveries of such standing as penicillin or the Terracotta Army.

Marcos Martinón-Torres

Marcos Martinón-Torres is Senior Lecturer in Archaeological Science and Material Culture at the UCL Institute of Archaeology and is the Director of the Imperial Logistics Project.


Imperial Logistics: The Making of the Terracotta Army
UCL Institute of Archaeology, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY UK
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