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The terracotta warrior that was damaged whilst on loan to Franklin Institute in Pennsylvania.

Thumbs Down for American Man Who Damaged $4.5 million Artifact


A 24-year-old American man was arrested by the FBI for breaking off and then stealing part of a $4.5 million Terracotta Warrior, according to a report in

Selfie Shame

On the 21st December 2017, Michael Rohana had been at an "ugly sweater party" at the Franklin Institute in Pennsylvania where 10 of the famous Chinese Terracotta Warriors were on display. Using his "cellphone’s flashlight” he entered the terracotta warrior exhibition room and according to the arrest affidavit, by Jacob B. Archer, a special agent assigned to the F.B.I.’s art crime team, “the man put his arm around the statue and took a selfie,” according to a report in the New York Times.

The discovery of 8,000 Terracotta Warriors in 1974 by local farmers in Xian, the capital of China's northern province of Shaanxi, is the county’s greatest ever archaeological find. Created around 209 BC, the warriors guarded the first emperor’s tomb and they are thought of as a "symbol of ancient Chinese artistic and military sophistication,” The reports.

Terracotta Army in Xi’an, China.

Terracotta Army in Xi’an, China. (Public Domain)

A Damaged Digit

Perpetrator Archer broke off the warrior’s clay thumb and stashed the ancient artifact "in his pocket” before he left with friends for his home in Bear, Delaware. It was on Jan. 8, 2018 staff at the museum in Philly noticed the warriors thumb was gone! An FBI agent tracked down Rohana at his home in Bear and the thumb was found in “his desk drawer,” according to an article in The National Geographic. Rohana was arrested for “theft of a major artwork from a museum,” “concealment of a major stolen artwork” and “the interstate transportation of stolen property” for which the court documents state he was “released on $15,000 bail.”

The terracotta soldier and his terracotta horse are two of the statues on loan to museums in the USA.

The terracotta soldier and his terracotta horse are two of the statues on loan to museums in the USA. (Public Domain)

Chinese Outrage

The Terracotta Warriors are a major tourist attraction and in 1987 they became a “World Heritage Site” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  The director of the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relic Exchange Center told the Beijing Youth Daily Sunda, as reported by, “We call on the U.S. side to severely punish the person who committed such a damaging act of vandalism and theft of humanity’s cultural heritage.” The Director of Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relic Exchange Center, also said they were sending two specialists to the United States “to assist in the repair of the statue,” explaining that the “compensation for damages” process, had already begun.

The Herald reported “Chinese social media erupted in outrage at the news” and one user wrote, “Whoever agreed to use our ancestor’s funerary objects to curry favor with foreigners should be the one ‘severely punished’ first,” and another user questioned, "If they don’t understand that our statue is precious, why would we lend it to the US in the first place?”

The global craving to be in the picture.

The global craving to be in the picture. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Wider Perspective

Hold on a second! Although there is no justification for Archer’s shocking theft of the Terracotta Warrior’s thumb, China has a track record of willfully destroying its archaeology. Only last week I reported on the 2007 destruction of six ancient Chinese tombs to make way for an Ikea store. Further putting this “thumb theft” in perspective, at the behest of Chairman Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, the “revolution" saw countless artifacts vandalized and destroyed as communists attempted to dismantle the influence of traditional Chinese cultures. And infinitely darker still, was that over half a million “intellectuals" were starved for being "class enemies,” and millions more people were imprisoned during the self-imposed destruction of traditional Chinese heritage which resulted in the crippling of the Chinese economy.

Chairman Mao Zedong, 1966.

Chairman Mao Zedong, 1966. (Public Domain)

Proportional Punishment

As the book is being thrown, rightfully, at the American thumb thief, Archer, even folk within the Great Firewall of China have reminded their politicians to “remember” the Revolution while dealing with Archer, one Chinese user asked “Who will be held responsible for all the cultural relics destroyed in the Cultural Revolution?”

Archer will soon be sentenced in the US for what amounts to an immature act of archaeological vandalism, in stealing a thumb, and although this frustrates me, repulses me and generally saddens me, I cannot get the thought out of my head that as Archer stands in the dock in the US facing prison time for “nicking a thumb,” somewhere in China a bulldozer driver will be tearing an ancient building apart, his gang will loot the tomb, and the artifacts will be sold on the black market, to make way for European superstores like Ikea.

My life starts and stops with heritage and archaeology and Archer is in every way my arch enemy, and he should be processed as such. But looking at the broader spectrum of life, before authorities in China press any harder for justice in the US, they might first look inwards and find that this criminal act results from a homegrown system - karma. Never has the word karma found a more fitting application, than in the case of Archer and the Terra-cotta Warrior’s Thumb.

Top image: The terracotta warrior that was damaged whilst on loan to Franklin Institute in Pennsylvania. (Public Domain)

 By Ashley Cowie



I am less concerned about the typo in the article and the FBI involvement than I am by this young man's total disregard for the cultural heritage of another nation and his feeling of entitlement to sneak into the exhibit, take a selfie and take a souvenier. At 24 years of age he should know better and if he doesn’t he should not be allowed out in public without proper supervision. This young man’s actions are those of the "ugly American" other countries rebel against. What the Chinese do with their cultural heritage on their own soil is their own business, while I think it is shameful, it is not my call. What happens to items on loan to another country is also their business. He is lucky the damage happened here and not in China, although I think China should be asked what a fit sentence would be. They would probably say cut off one of his thumbs. He should also have to pay all the costs of restoration, including the travel costs of the restorers. 


ashley cowie's picture

Hi Andreas. I totally agree with you in sentiment, but it could be argued that in destroying a loaned artifatct from another country worth 4.5 million, is beyond “minor aspects of our daily lives.” 

Bad situation. BUT Unless the museum is a FEDERAL entity, the FBI had no jurisdiction. Until interstate trafficking was known. We have (re)entered an era where a central government takes overall (good or bad) , Did we not fight a War against Britain over their central govt, controlling even minor aspects of our daily lives, including a forced national religion. If local governments want the Central Govt, micro-managing, then they need to dissolve all local govt & petition Federal Congress to change them to Federal holdings with NO self-rule. Or better move to some dictatorship.

In at least three places, this article states that "Archer" is the perpetrator, which is not true. Michael Rohana is the perpetrator; Jacob Archer is an FBI agent who prepared the affidavit.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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