SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Novel theories challenge conventional understanding of Chinese art history

Terracotta Warriors pics
The terracotta warriors standing in marching formation. Credit: Dr Lukas Nickel

Dr Lukas Nickel’s archaeological fieldwork, art historical research and philological study have led to his proposition of novel theories that question the conventional wisdom surrounding the influences on, methods of production and historical-contextual details of key genres and elements of the Chinese art historical canon, including the famous Terracotta Warriors. 

Both in China and internationally, his theories have motivated debate, experimentation, and informed and shifted interpretation amongst those working in a range of cultural institutions as well as the general public.

Dr Nickel’s research is driven by his conviction that material culture can provide significant insight into past societies, societies that are (in the Chinese case) often studied primarily through literary sources. He employs art historical, archaeological and philological approaches and methods, and uses traditional excavation as well as experimental archaeology and aerial photography. This range of interdisciplinary methods has greatly supported his generation of alternative and often challenging views.

The impact of Dr Nickel’s approach is exemplified by three distinct themes:

  • the bronze casting methods of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties (1600-1046 BC and 1046-256 BC
  • recently-excavated 6th-century AD Buddha and bodhisattva figures; and
  • the possible influence of Hellenistic figurative representation on the Terracotta Warriors.

Dr Nickel’s theories on casting techniques has prompted much discussion in China and beyond, initiating renewed scrutiny of the techniques used to adorn ancient bronze vessels with often complex relief decoration. The Museum of Ezhou, in Hubei, commissioned a series of experiments to test these theories and though their results did not fully support Nickel’s theory relating to “tube lining,” they supported his suggestion that ornaments were made on inner faces of moulds. 

The Vice-Director of the Ezhou Museum, and himself an expert caster, Dong Yawei, said:
“We think the theory of Lukas is very unique and interesting. His method is a Western interpretation of Chinese bronze. As the experiment demonstrated, Lukas’s method does not work, but this outcome does not mean his opinion is wrong. The technology that enabled ornament needs to be further explored in the future, his argument may be right.”

Dr Nickel made a pioneering catalogue of one of China’s most significant recent archaeological finds, a large burial pit 400 miles south of Beijing containing hundreds of fragments of 6th century Buddhist figures. Eventually, more than 200 torsos, 144 heads of the Buddha and 50 heads of bodhisattva figures, many retaining traces of coloured pigments and gilding, were unearthed. Tribute has been paid to his ‘remarkable scholarship’  and as a direct result of Nickel’s research and excavation of the second Buddhist temple in Shandong, archaeologists he has collaborated with (notably Li Zhengguang of the state-sponsored Shandong Province Archaeological Institute) have begun a large-scale survey of all early Buddhist sites in the province.

Dr Nickel’s recent research on the transmission of style and individual motifs eastward along the Silk Road from the eastern Mediterranean through the Middle East and Central Asia to China has attracted much controversy. Through his analysis of art historical and archaeological evidence, he explicitly challenges mainstream interpretations that refute the possibility of external influence on Chinese art and argues for a re-evaluation of the dynamics of stylistic influence in Chinese history.